George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (January 13, 1866–1877?- October 29, 1949), also commonly referred to as Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff and G. I. Gurdjieff, was an influential spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century who taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. Gurdjieff developed a method for doing so, calling his discipline “The Work” (connoting “work on oneself”) or “the Method”. According to his principles and instructions, Gurdjieff’s method for awakening one’s consciousness is different from that of the fakir, monk or yogi, so his discipline is also called (originally) the “Fourth Way”. At one point, he described his teaching as being “esoteric Christianity”.
At different times in his life, Gurdjieff formed and closed various schools around the world to teach The Work. He claimed that the teachings he brought to the West from his own experiences and early travels expressed the truth found in ancient religions and wisdom teachings relating to self-awareness in people’s daily lives and humanity’s place in the universe. The title of his third series of writings, Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’, expresses the essence of his teachings. His complete series of books is entitled All and Everything.
In early adulthood, according to his own account, Gurdjieff’s curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet and Rome, before returning to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only account of his wanderings appears in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men. Most commentators leave his background unexplained and it is not generally considered to be a reliable or straightforward autobiography. Each chapter is named after an individual “remarkable man”, many of them putatively members of a society of “Seekers after truth”. J.G.Bennet, who researched Gurdjieff’s sources extensively after his death, suggested these characters were symbolic of the three types of men Gurdjieff used to refer to: men #1 centered in their physical body; men #2 centered in their emotions, and men #3 centered in their minds. He asserts that he has encounters with dervishes, fakirs and with descendents of the extinct Essenes, whose teaching had been, he claimed, conserved in a monastery at Sarmoung. The book also has an overarching quest narrative, involving a map of “pre-sand Egypt,” and culminating in an encounter with the “Sarmoung Brotherhood”, an organisation which has never been definitively identified.
Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connection with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as World War I. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.
According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person—namely, either the emotions, or the physical body or the mind—tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or centers, as Gurdjieff called them. As a result these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three—namely the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and America. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.
In parallel with other spiritual traditions, Gurdjieff taught that one must expend considerable effort to effect the transformation that leads to awakening. The effort that one puts into practice Gurdjieff referred to as The Work or Work on oneself. According to Gurdjieff, “…Working on oneself is not so difficult as wishing to work, taking the decision.” Though Gurdjieff never put major significance on the term “Fourth Way” and never used the term in his writings, his pupil P.D. Ouspensky from 1924 to 1947 made the term and its use central to his own teaching of Gurdjieff’s ideas. After Ouspensky’s death, his students published a book titled The Fourth Way based on his lectures.
Gurdjieff’s teaching addressed the question of humanity’s place in the universe and the importance of developing latent potentialities—regarded as our natural endowment as human beings but rarely brought to fruition. He taught that higher levels of consciousness, higher bodies, inner growth and development are real possibilities that nonetheless require conscious work to achieve.
In his teaching Gurdjieff gave a distinct meaning to various ancient texts such as the Bible and many religious prayers. He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning than what is commonly attributed to them. “Sleep not”; “Awake, for you know not the hour”; and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within” are examples of biblical statements which point to a psychological teaching whose essence has been forgotten.
Gurdjieff taught people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. According to his teaching, this inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, the aim of which is to transform people into what Gurdjieff believed they ought to be.
Distrusting “morality,” which he describes as varying from culture to culture, often contradictory and hypocritical, Gurdjieff greatly stressed the importance of conscience.
To provide conditions in which inner attention could be exercised more intensively, Gurdjieff also taught his pupils “sacred dances” or “movements,” later known as the Gurdjieff movements, which they performed together as a group. He also left a body of music, inspired by what he heard in visits to remote monasteries and other places, written for piano in collaboration with one of his pupils, Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff also used various exercises, such as the “Stop” exercise, to prompt self-observation in his students. Other shocks to help awaken his pupils from constant daydreaming were always possible at any moment.
The Work is in essence a training in the development of consciousness. During his lifetime Gurdjieff used a number of different methods and materials, including meetings, music, movements (sacred dance), writings, lectures, and innovative forms of group and individual work. Part of the function of these various methods was to undermine and undo the ingrained habit patterns of the mind and bring about moments of insight. Since each individual has different requirements, Gurdjieff did not have a one-size-fits-all approach, and he adapted and innovated as circumstance required. In Russia he was described as keeping his teaching confined to a small circle, whereas in Paris and North America he gave numerous public demonstrations.
Gurdjieff felt that the traditional methods of self-knowledge—those of the fakir, monk, and yogi (acquired, respectively, through pain, devotion, and study)—were inadequate on their own and often led to various forms of stagnation and one-sidedness. His methods were designed to augment the traditional paths with the purpose of hastening the developmental process. He sometimes called these methods The Way of the Sly Man because they constituted a sort of short-cut through a process of development that might otherwise carry on for years without substantive results. The teacher, possessing consciousness, sees the individual requirements of the disciple and sets tasks that he knows will result in a transformation of consciousness in that individual. Instructive historical parallels can be found in the annals of Zen Buddhism, where teachers employed a variety of methods (sometimes highly unorthodox) to bring about the arising of insight in the student.
Opinions on Gurdjieff’s writings and activities are divided. Sympathizers regard him as a charismatic master who brought new knowledge into Western culture, a psychology and cosmology that enable insights beyond those provided by established science. On the other hand, some critics assert he was a charlatan with a large ego and a constant need for self-glorification. Gurdjieff is said to have had a strong influence on many modern mystics, artists, writers, and thinkers, including Walter Inglis Anderson, Raymond Armin, Kevin Ayers, Peter Brook, Kate Bush, Carlos Castaneda, Abdullah Isa Neil Dougan, Muriel Draper, Robert Fripp, Keith Jarrett, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Timothy Leary, Dennis Lewis, James Moore, Jacob Needleman, Osho (Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh), Louis Pauwels, Robert S de Ropp, George Russell (composer), Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, John Shirley, Jean Toomer, Jeremy Lane (writer), P. L. Travers, Alan Watts, Colin Wilson, Robert Anton Wilson and Frank Lloyd Wright.
Gurdjieff’s notable personal students include Jeanne de Salzmann, Willem Nyland, Lord Pentland (Henry John Sinclair), P. D. Ouspensky, Olga de Hartmann, Thomas de Hartmann, Jane Heap, John G. Bennett, Alfred Richard Orage, Maurice Nicoll, Lanza del Vasto, George and Helen Adie, Rene Daumal and Katherine Mansfield. The Italian composer and singer Franco Battiato was sometime inspired by Gurdjieff’s work, for example in his song “Centro di gravità permanente”—one of most popular modern Italian pop songs. Aleister Crowley visited his Institute at least once and privately praised Gurdjieff’s work, though with some reservations. During WWI, Algernon Blackwood took up spying while reporting to John Buchan, author of The Thirty Nine Steps. After the war, during the Roaring Twenties, Blackwood studied with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.
Gurdjieff gave new life and practical form to ancient teachings of both East and West. For example, the Socratic and Platonic emphasis on “the examined life” recurs in Gurdjieff’s teaching as the practice of self-observation. His teachings about self-discipline and restraint reflect Stoic teachings. The Hindu and Buddhist notion of attachment recurs in Gurdjieff’s teaching as the concept of identification. His descriptions of the “three being-foods” matches that of Ayurveda, and his statement that “time is breath” echoes jyotish, the Vedic system of astrology. Similarly, his cosmology can be “read” against ancient and esoteric sources, respectively Neoplatonic and in such sources as Robert Fludd’s treatment of macrocosmic musical structures.
An aspect of Gurdjieff’s teachings which has come into prominence in recent decades is the enneagram geometric figure. For many students of the Gurdjieff tradition, the enneagram remains a koan, challenging and never fully explained. There have been many attempts to trace the origins of this version of the enneagram; some similarities to other figures have been found, but it seems that Gurdjieff was the first person to make the enneagram figure publicly known and that only he knew its true source.
Gurdjieff inspired the formation of many groups after his death, all of which still function today and follow his ideas.The Gurdjieff Foundation, the largest organization directly influenced by the ideas of Gurdjieff, was organized by Jeanne de Salzmann during the early 1950s, and led by her in cooperation with other pupils of his.
Various pupils of Gurdjieff and his direct students have formed other groups. Willem Nyland, one of Gurdjieff’s closest students and an original founder and trustee of The Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, left to form his own groups in the early 1960s. Jane Heap was sent to London by Gurdjieff, where she led groups until her death in 1964. Louise Goepfert March, who became a pupil of Gurdjieff’s in 1929, started her own groups in 1957 and founded the Rochester Folk Art Guild in the Finger Lakes region of New York State; her efforts were closely linked to the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. Independent groups were formed and led by John G. Bennett and Mrs. Staveley. Gurdjieff student Lord Pentland connects the Gurdjieff group-work with the later rise of encounter groups.
Excerpts from his writings:
“Without self-knowledge, without understanding the working and functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern himself and he will always remain a slave.”
“Conscious faith is freedom. Emotional faith is slavery. Mechanical faith is foolishness.”
“Practice love on animals first; they react better and more sensitively.”
“It is very difficult also to sacrifice one’s suffering. A man will renounce any pleasures you like but he will not give up his suffering.”
“Awakening is possible only for those who seek it and want it, for those who are ready to struggle with themselves and work on themselves for a very long time and very persistently in order to attain it.”
“I ask you to believe nothing that you cannot verify for yourself.”
“To know means to know all. Not to know all means not to know. In order to know all, it is only necessary to know a little. But, in order to know this little, it is first necessary to know pretty much.”
“Two things in life are infinite; the stupidity of man and the mercy of God.”
“There is a cosmic law which says that every satisfaction must be paid for with a dissatisfaction.”
“I will tell you one thing that will make you rich for life. There are two struggles: an Inner-world struggle and an Outer-world struggle…you must make an intentional contact between these two worlds; then you can crystallize data for the Third World, the World of the Soul.”
“Man has no individual i. But there are, instead, hundreds and thousands of separate small “i”s, very often entirely unknown to one another, never coming into contact, or, on the contrary, hostile to each other, mutually exclusive and incompatible. Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking, “i”. And each time his i is different. just now it was a thought, now it is a desire, now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is a plurality. Man’s name is legion.”
“The greatest untold story is the evolution of God.”
“Better to die than live in sleep.”
“Love without knowledge is demonic.”
“Man must use what he has, not hope for what is not.”
“Remember you come here having already understood the necessity of struggling with yourself — only with yourself. Therefore thank everyone who gives you the opportunity.”
“It is the greatest mistake to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour.”
“LIBERATION LEADS TO LIBERATION. These are the first words of truth — not truth in quotation marks but truth in the real meaning of the word; truth which is not merely theoretical, not simply a word, but truth that can be realized in practice. The meaning behind these words may be explained as follows:
By liberation is meant the liberation which is the aim of all schools, all religions, at all times.
This liberation can indeed be very great. All men desire it and strive after it. But it cannot be attained without the first liberation, a lesser liberation. The great liberation is liberation from influences outside us. The lesser liberation is liberation from influences within us.
At first, for beginners, this lesser liberation appears to be very great, for a beginner depends very little on external influences. Only a man who has already become free of inner influences falls under external influences.
Inner influences prevent a man from falling under external influences. Maybe it is for the best. Inner influences and inner slavery come from many varied sources and many independent factors — independent in that sometimes it is one thing and sometimes another, for we have many enemies.
There are so many of these enemies that life would not be long enough to struggle with each of them and free ourselves from each one separately. So we must find a method, a line of work, which will enable us simultaneously to destroy the greatest possible number of enemies within us from which these influences come.
I said that we have many independent enemies, but the chief and most active are vanity and self-love. One teaching even calls them representatives and messengers of the devil himself.
For some reason they are also called Mrs. Vanity and Mr. Self-Love.
As I have said, there are many enemies. I have mentioned only these two as the most fundamental. At the moment it is hard to enumerate them all. It would be difficult to work on each of them directly and specifically, and it would take too much time since there are so many. So we have to deal with them indirectly in order to free ourselves from several at once.
These representatives of the devil stand unceasingly at the threshold which separates us from the outside, and prevent not only good but also bad external influences from entering. Thus they have a good side as well as a bad side.
For a man who wishes to discriminate among the influences he receives, it is an advantage to have these watchmen. But if a man wishes all influences to enter, no matter what they may be — for it is impossible to select only the good ones — he must liberate himself as much as possible, and finally altogether, from these watchmen, whom some considerable undesirable.
For this there are many methods, and a great number of means. Personally I would advise you to try freeing yourselves and to do so without unnecessary theorizing, by simple reasoning, active reasoning, within yourselves.”
“Knowledge can be acquired by a suitable and complete study, no matter what the starting point is. Only one must know how to ‘learn.’ What is nearest to us is man; and you are the nearest of all men to yourself. Begin with the study of yourself; remember the saying ‘Know thyself.”
“In order to awaken, first of all one must realize that one is in a state of sleep. And in order to realize that one is indeed in a state of sleep, one must recognize and fully understand the nature of the forces which operate to keep one in the state of sleep, or hypnosis. It is absurd to think that this can be done by seeking information from the very source which induces the hypnosis.
One thing alone is certain, that man’s slavery grows and increases. Man is becoming a willing slave. He no longer needs chains. He begins to grow fond of his slavery, to be proud of it. And this is the most terrible thing that can happen to a man.”
“Life is real only then, when “I am”.”
“With thorns in the inner world there will always be roses in the outer world, in law-able compensation.
“Let us take some event in the life of humanity. For instance, war. There is a war going on at the present moment. What does it signify? It signifies that several millions of sleeping people are trying to destroy several millions of other sleeping people. They would not do this, of course, if they were to wake up. Everything that takes place is owing to this sleep.”
“From looking at your neighbor and realizing his true significance, and that he will die, pity and compassion will arise in you for him and finally you will love him.”
“In my opinion, what will be troublesome for you in all this is chiefly that in childhood there was implanted in you—and has now become perfectly harmonized with your general psyche—an excellently working automatism for perceiving all kinds of new impressions, thanks to which “blessing” you have now, during your responsible life, no need to make any individual effort whatsoever.”
“It is necessary to observe yourself differently than you do in ordinary life. It is necessary to have a different attitude, not the attitude you had till now. You know where your habitual attitudes have led you till now. There is no sense in going on as before.”
“It is impossible to recognize a wrong way without knowing the right way. This means that it is no use troubling oneself how to recognize a wrong way. One must think of how to find the right way.”
“In properly organized groups no faith is required; what is required is simply a little trust and even that only for a little while, for the sooner a man begins to verify all he hears the better it is for him.”
“A man can keep silence in such a ways that no one will even notice it. The whole point is that we say a good deal too much. If we limited ourselves to what is actually necessary, this alone would be keeping the silence. And it is the same with everything else, with food, with pleasures, with sleep; with everything there is a limit to what is necessary. After this “sin” begins. This is something that must be grasped, a “sin” is something which is not necessary.”
“In speaking of evolution it is necessary to understand from the outset that no mechanical evolution is possible. The evolution of man is the evolution of his consciousness.”
“One of man’s important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I.”
“Man such as we know him, the “man-machine,” the man who cannot “do,” and with whom and through whom everything “happens,” cannot have a permanent and single I. His I changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago. Man has no permanent and unchangeable I. Every thought, every mood, every desire, every sensation, says “I”.”
“The being of two people can differ from one another more than the being of a mineral and of an animal. This is exactly what people do not understand. And they do not understand that knowledge depends on being. Not only do they not understand this latter but they definitely do not wish to understand it.”
“In literature, science, art, philosophy, religion, in individual and above all in social and political life, we can observe how the line of the development of forces deviates from its original direction and goes, after a certain time, in a diametrically opposite direction, still preserving its former name.”
“Objective knowledge, the idea of unity included, belongs to objective consciousness. The forms which express this knowledge when perceived by subjective consciousness are inevitably distorted and, instead of truth, they create more and more delusions. With objective consciousness it is possible to see and feel the unity of everything. But for subjective consciousness the world is split up into millions of separate and unconnected phenomena. Attempts to connect these phenomena into some sort of system in a scientific or philosophical way lead to nothing because man cannot reconstruct the idea of the whole starting from separate facts and they cannot divine the principles of the division of the whole without knowing the laws upon which this division is based.”
“RELIGION IS DOING; a man does not merely think his religion or feel it, he lives his religion as much as he is able, otherwise it is not religion but fantasy or philosophy. Whether he likes it or not he shows his attitude towards religion by his actions and he can show his attitude only by his actions. Therefore if his actions are opposed to those which are demanded by a given religion he cannot assert that he belongs to that religion.”
“In right knowledge the study of man must proceed on parallel lines with the study of the world, and the study of the world must run parallel with the study of man.”
“When we speak of prayer or of the results of prayer we always imply only one kind of prayer — petition, or we think that petition can be united with all other kinds of prayers.… Most prayers have nothing in common with petitions. I speak of ancient prayers; many of them are much older than Christianity. These prayers are, so to speak, recapitulations; by repeating them aloud or to himself a man endeavors to experience what is in them, their whole content, with his mind and his feeling.”
“A man may be born, but in order to be born he must first die, and in order to die he must first awake.”
“The sole means now for the saving of the beings of the planet Earth would be to implant again into their presences a new organ … of such properties that every one of these unfortunates during the process of existence should constantly sense and be cognizant of the inevitability of his own death as well as the death of everyone upon whom his eyes or attention rests. Only such a sensation and such a cognizance can now destroy the egoism completely crystallized in them that has swallowed up the whole of their Essence, and also that tendency to hate others which flows from it.”
“From my point of view, he can be called a remarkable man who stands out from those around him by the resourcefulness of his mind, and who knows how to be restrained in the manifestations which proceed from his nature, at the same time conducting himself justly and tolerantly towards the weaknesses of others.”
“Faith cannot be given to man. Faith arises in a man and increases in its action in him not as the result of automatic learning, that is, not from any automatic ascertainment of height, breadth, thickness, form and weight, or from the perception of anything by sight, hearing, touch, smell or taste, but from understanding.”
“Understanding is the essence obtained from information intentionally learned and from all kinds of experiences personally experienced.”
“It is very difficult to explain what takes place in me when I see or hear anything majestic which allows no doubt that it proceeds from the actualization of Our Maker Creator. Each time, my tears flow of themselves. I weep, that is to say, it weeps in me, not from grief, no, but as if from tenderness.”
“Formerly, it may be said, my whole being was possessed by egoism. All my manifestations and experiencings flowed from my vanity. The meeting with Father Giovanni killed all this, and from then on there gradually arose in me that “something” which has brought the whole of me to the unshakable conviction that, apart from the vanities of life, there exists a “something else” which must be the aim and ideal of every more or less thinking man, and that it is only this something else which may make a man really happy and give him real values, instead of the illusory “goods” with which in ordinary life he is always and in everything full.”
“Knowledge and understanding are quite different. Only understanding can lead to being, whereas knowledge is but a passing presence in it.”
“All religions speak about death during this life on earth. Death must come before rebirth. But what must die? False confidence in one’s own knowledge, self-love and egoism. Our egoism must be broken. We must realize that we are very complicated machines, and so this process of breaking is bound to be a long and difficult task. Before real growth becomes possible, our personality must die.”
“The power of changing oneself lies not in the mind, but in the body and the feelings. Unfortunately, however, our body and our feelings are so constituted that they don’t care a jot about anything so long as they are happy. They live for the moment and their memory is short. The mind alone lives for tomorrow. Each has its own merits. The merit of the mind is that it looks ahead. But it is only the other two that can ‘do.’”
“Sincerity is the key which will open the door through which you will see your separate parts, and you will see something quite new. You must go on trying to be sincere. Each day you put on a mask, and you must take it off little by little.”