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The Teachings of Gurdjieff


Gurdjieff:1/5 The Great Awakening.


Gurdjieff's Law of Accident


Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson


George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (1866-1949) was born in Russian Armenia. He spent years searching in Central Asia, North Africa, and other places for a hidden tradition whose traces he had encountered in youth. During this search he came into contact with certain esoteric schools. In the early 1900's he brought to Europe a teaching that he had developed from the results of this contact.

Gurdjieff's basic teaching is that human life is lived in waking sleep; transcendence of the sleeping state requires a specific inner work, which is practiced in private quiet conditions, and in the midst of life with others. This leads to otherwise inaccessible levels of vitality and awareness.

Though Gurdjieff's name has become familiar in recent years, the real nature of his work is still little known. The Way of Gurdjieff is an oral tradition. The understanding of his work can only be received by direct contact between teacher and pupil, and by the work of pupils together in organised groups. Under conditions of a special atmosphere of trust that can exist in such a group, people working together learn to face their own inner poverty and confusion. Working in this way, conscience is awakened along with consciousness. Consciousness, Conscience, and Sensation form the tripod upon which an integrated development of human potential must be based.

Gurdjieff’s fundamental aim was to help human beings awaken to the meaning of our existence and to the efforts we must make to realize that meaning in the midst of the life we have been given. As with every messenger of the spirit, Gurdjieff’s fundamental intention was ultimately for the sake of others, never only for himself. But when we first encounter the figure of Gurdjieff, this central aspect of his life is often missed. Faced with the depth of his ideas and the inner demands he placed upon himself and upon those who were drawn to him, and becoming aware of the uniquely effective forms of inner work he created, we may initially be struck mainly by the vastness of his knowledge and the strength of his being. But sooner or later what may begin to touch us is the unique quality of selflessness in his actions, the sacrifices he made both for those who came to him, and for all of humanity. We begin to understand that his life was a work of love; and at the same time that word, “love,” begins to take on entirely new dimensions of meaning, inconceivable in the state of what Gurdjieff called waking sleep.

In the face of this question, the heart is restless, but the mind soon falls silent. It is as though the unprecedented crisis of our modern world confounds and all but refutes thousands of years of religious doctrine and centuries of scientific progress. Who now dreams of turning to religion for the answer when it is religion itself that lies so close to the root of war and barbarism? Who dares turn to science for the answer when it is advancing technology, the very fruit of scientific progress, that has so amplified the destructive powers of human egoism? And who imagines that new theories of society, new social programs, new ideologies can do anything more than wrap the falling earth in dreams of flying?

The mind falls silent.

But in that silence something within can awaken. In that moment an entirely new kind of hope can appear. The Gurdjieff work may in part be understood as the practical, painstaking cultivation of that silence and that hope, that state of embodied awakening to the truth of the human condition in the world and in oneself. The unanswerable question about the fate of humanity and the world is transformed into the question, also unanswerable: What is a human being? Who am I? But it is now a question asked with more of oneself, not only with the mind alone—the mind which, with all its explanations, has so little power to resist the forces of violence and brutality; nor with emotion alone, which with all its fervor often ends by making the most sacred of doctrines into instruments of agitation and death. Nor, so the Gurdjieff teaching also shows us, can the question of who and what we are be answered by giving way again and again to the endlessly recurring obsessions rooted in the physical body. That is to say, the great question of who and what we are cannot be answered by only one part of the whole of ourselves pretending to be the master. This self-deceptive state of the human being is precisely what

Gurdjieff meant by mankind’s state of waking sleep. In this sleep, he tells us, we are born, live and die, write books, invent religions, build monuments, commit murders and destroy all that is good.

One thing, and one thing only is therefore necessary. It is necessary for individual men and women to awaken, to remember Who they are, and then to become Who they really are, to live it in the service of Truth. Without this awakening and this becoming, nothing else can help us.

But it is very difficult. An extraordinary quality of help is needed. To this end, Gurdjieff created what has come to be called the Work.

A central focus of the Gurdjieff teaching is the awakening to consciousness and the creation of proper communal and psychological conditions that can support this multi-leveled process. For this, a preparatory work is necessary, as stated by Jeanne de Salzmann: “According to Gurdjieff, the truth can be approached only if all the parts which make the human being, the thought, the feeling, and the body, are touched with the same force in a particular way appropriate to each of them—failing which, development will inevitably be one-sided and sooner or later come to a stop. In the absence of an effective understanding of this principle, all work on oneself is certain to deviate from the aim. The essential conditions will be wrongly understood and one will see a mechanical repetition of the forms of effort which never surpass a quite ordinary level.”

Gurdjieff gave the name of “self-remembering” to the central state of conscious attention in which the higher force that is available within the human structure makes contact with the functions of thought, feeling and body. The individual “remembers,” as it were, who and what he really is and is meant to be, over and above his ordinary sense of identity. This conscious attention is not a function of the mind but is the active conscious force which all our functions of thought, feeling and movement can begin to obey as the “inner master.”

Consistent with the knowledge behind many contemplative traditions of the world, the practice of the Gurdjieff work places chief emphasis on preparing our inner world to receive this higher attention, which can open us to an inconceivably finer energy of love and understanding.
The Gurdjieff work remains above all essentially an oral tradition, transmitted under specially created conditions from person to person, continually unfolding, without fixed doctrinal beliefs or external rites, as a way toward freeing humanity from the waking sleep that holds us in a kind of hypnotic illusion. The moving life of the tradition thus supports the individual search and helps to overcome the seemingly universal impulse of resistance or inertia: the tendency toward attachment, and the gradual fixing on partial aspects, institutionalized forms, dogmatic doctrines and a habitual reliance on the known rather than facing and entering the unknown. According to the Gurdjieff teaching, the forms exist only to help discover, incarnate, and elaborate a formless energy of awakening, and without this understanding the forms of the teaching become an end in themselves and lose their meaning.
At present, the general forms of practice in the Gurdjieff tradition may be characterized as follows:

Group meetings:

Gurdjieff taught that alone an individual can do nothing.
In group meetings students regularly come together to participate in a collective atmosphere that is meant to function as a principal means for the transformation of the individual state of consciousness. Although, with the help of more advanced pupils, questions are shared and responded to in words, the fundamental support of the group is directed to the individual work of facing oneself and consciously recognizing one’s own inner lack, until the appearance of a new quality of energy is possible. The more experienced pupils, helping the group as part of their own search, strive to be sensitive not so much to the content of the exchange, but to the process of the developing energy and the mutual teaching that can take place under its influence. In their turn, more advanced pupils just as urgently need to work in groups, and in this way a redefinition of the conventional image of the “leader” is inevitable. At each level of inner work, what has been understood needs to be individually and collectively re-examined and verified in the movement of a dynamic, living esoteric school.

The dances and movements which Gurdjieff taught were partially a result of his research in the monasteries and schools of Asia, and are of a nature that seems unique in the modern Western world. In certain respects, they are comparable to sacred dances in traditional religious systems (for example, the ’Cham dances of Tibetan Buddhism or the dervish dances of the Sufis). Like them, the Gurdjieff Movements are based on the view that a series of specific postures, gestures, and movements, supported by an intentional use of melody and rhythm and an essential element of right individual effort, can help to evoke an inner condition which is closer to a more conscious existence, or a state of unity, which can allow an opening to the conscious energy of the Self. The Movements are now regularly given at major centers of the work by carefully prepared pupils who emphasize the need for exactitude and a special quality of feeling, without which the Movements cannot provide the help for which they were brought.

The practice of sitting is difficult to characterize apart from observing that, in accordance with the overall aim of the work, it is not a “form” in and for itself, but is fundamentally a preparation for the inner search within the midst of life. With or without spoken guidance, the aim is ultimately to help individuals search for an embodied presence that sustains the attempt to enter more deeply into an awareness of all the opposing forces constantly moving within the body.

Work in life:

To be able to work in life in the full sense would be considered a very high achievement. The struggle to be “present” in everyday life constitutes a major aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching, a struggle which leads to a full engagement in the duties and rewards of human life, now and here. In this context, Gurdjieff created conditions to help his pupils experience the fundamental practice of self-observation. Through such experience, a man or woman can begin to come into contact with an ever-deepening sense of inner need which allows an opening to a powerful conscious influence within oneself. According to Gurdjieff, without a relationship to this more central aspect of oneself, everyday life is bound to be an existential prison, in which the individual is held captive, not so much by the so-called forces of modernity, as by the parts of the self which cannot help but react automatically to the influences of the world. The help offered by the special conditions of the work is therefore understood not as replacing our life in the world, but as enabling us, in the course of time, to live life with authentic understanding and full participation.

Briefly, the movement toward awakening which is meant to be supported by the ideas and these forms of practice becomes in fact an organic process in life and movement, and for that reason, dogmatic approaches will inevitably fail. The process of awakening requires not only an understanding of the constituent forces and laws which govern man’s psyche and actions, but also a deep sensitivity and appreciation of individual subjective needs and conditions. In other words, for an effective guidance, the principle of relativity must be recognized in the transmission of the teaching: individuals must be approached according to their respective levels of development and experience. Gurdjieff might have stressed one view to a student at a certain level of understanding and quite another view when that student had reached another level. This might give the appearance of contradiction, but in fact it was consistent in applying only those aspects of the whole teaching truly necessary at a given moment. The same principle applies to the ideas, some of which seemed more accessible at one period while others still remained to be revealed in the unfolding life of the teaching.

For example, the work of “self-observation” acquires a completely new meaning as the developing attention lets go of its effort, joining and willingly submitting to a higher conscious seeing. The action that might take place in this condition—in the quiet of meditation or even in outer action—reflects the simultaneous dual nature of both an impersonal consciousness and a personal attention which has a new capacity to manifest and act in the world. The qualities of both these aspects of consciousness and attention are quite unknown to the ordinary mind. In this new relationship of individual attention and a higher impersonal consciousness, a man or woman can become a vessel, serving another energy which can act through the individual, an energy which at the same time transforms the materiality of the body at the cellular level.


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