George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born in about 1872 in the Caucasus region of what is now Russia. The so called “rascal sage” heralded the coming of ancient and esoteric Eastern teachings to the West. Neither a modernist nor a purveyor of any “isms,” he rather proclaimed there to be eternal Truths, with a capital T, that there are people who know and live those Truths and that Objective knowledge of the Real is possible. His work lives on in various guises …
“To awake. to die. To be born”. Through this aphorism G.I. Gurdjieff expresses virtually his entire philosophy. With these words Gurdjieff came as close as he ever did to explaining how to acquire a soul. To this end his followers gladly sacrificed energy, time, money- even their lives. …
But in order to awake, one must first “remember oneself,” and the concept of self-remembering is one of the most difficult of all the puzzling ideas in Gurdjieff”s teaching. Even the philosopher and mathematician Ouspensky, an expert in handling abstract ideas , found it hard to define; after a great struggle, he concluded that it meant “directing attention on oneself without weakening or obliterating the attention directed on something else.” When a student complained that it was impossible to “self-remember,” Gurdjieff would answer, “What else do you want? People who know this already know a great deal… If a man really knows that he cannot remember himself, he is already near the understanding of his being.”
What made Gurdjieff’s system so exasperating at first to Ouspensky, and to all lovers of logic, was the ruthless way in which he destroyed their first halting attempts to understand it. This was deliberate, for Gurdjieff despised the overintellectualization of Western man. “You must feel, you must feel, your mind is a luxury!” he would shout. “Never think of results, just do!” He wanted to dismantle the human machines he saw around him and create men. To this end he gave his pupils a series of “shocks,” intellectual and emotional, designed to break them of their mechanical behavior.
Every meeting with Gurdjieff led Ousepnsky into greater complexities; the system to which he was being initiated has, in fact, filled severla books and defies easy summary. Gurdjieff himself did everything in his power to prevent it from becoming a system at all, and when pupils quoted his sayings back to him, he would often brush his own ideas aside as rubbish. Nevertheless, some themes kept recurring.
Gurdjieff believed, for instance, in three centers, or “brains” in man: the intellectual, the emotional, the moving instinctive. In most people these three centers are at odds; Gurdjieff proposed to show how they could be brought into harmony. One step toward this is self-remembering; another is to stop what he called “identifying” – forming emotional attachments to objects, words, ideas- and to stop “considering”- caring about the opinions and prejudices of others.
Pupils also were expected to perform complicated exercises, derived from sacred dances Gurdjieff had witnessed during his travels. Meanwhile, the pupil was to make difficult arithmeti
computations in his head, while his emotions were brought into play by the repetition of a phrase such as “God have mercy!” Then, in the middle of a movement, Gurdjieff would shout “Stop!” and everyone had to freeze, holding his position if he could or dropping to the floor if he could not, until the Master cried, “Enough!”
Many of the techniques Gurdjieff used are familiar to psychotherapists; others are age-old devices of psychic conditioning and personality control. In his lectures and anecdotes he drew, often word for word from Sufism, Buddhism, Vedanta, Yoga practices, dervish dances; but he usually transformed them in some personal way. Reaching people at a time of confusion and despair, these ideas, derived from the Eastern tradition of inner wisdom and detachment and transmitted through Gurdjieff’s abundant energy and imposing logic, struck many intelligent people as a revelation.
When Ouspensky met him, Gurdjieff was commuting between groups of followers in Moscow and St.Petersburg. But the Russian revolution was approaching. With magnificent indifference to the surrounding chaos, Gurdjieff continued to teach, but eventually he was forced to collect a few disciples, Ouspensky among them, and take refuge in the small town of Essentuki, on the Black Sea. There he conducted extensive lectures and set out every aspect of his system in its main outlines. It was during this period that Ouspensky began to have doubts about Gurdjieff, and that finally led to the separation of the two men.
As the civil war spread, Gurdjieff moved from a succession of stops, eventually raising the money for a down payment o a chateau outside Fountainbleau in France, called the Prieuré d’Avon, and opened the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. Ouspensky felt Gurdjieff’s “outward form was somewhat in the nature of a caricature.” Caricature or not, the institute at Fontainbleu became a mecca, during the next decade, for all sorts of people: White Russian émigrés, dissatisfied intellectuals from Britain and France, doctors, psychiatrists, artists, American socialites, curious ex-Theosophists,young and gifted people with no settled aim but a yearning toward the supernatural. Some came for a week or two, others for a few months, a handful for years….
Gurdjieff’s ideas, radical and unsettling as they are, are not as unique as many of his followers have claimed. To explore how they tally up next to the work of Rudolf Steiner or C. G. Jung would a life’s work in itself. Scholars such as Patterson have indicated how some of Ouspensky’s own ideas, arrived at independently before he met Gurdjieff, are similar to those he would receive from his
master. Little has been written about the work Ouspensky did in the years prior to hitching his star to Gurdjieff’s wagon.
That Ouspensky’s ideas were instrumental in providing a theoretical framework for early Russian modernism is still too
little known, but perhaps one of those hidden levers that seems to animate Russian mysticism and its exportation to the West in a new and hybrid occult form. Apparently Ouspensky’s influence on the avant-garde movements of the early twentieth century, or about his importance for writers like Aldous Huxley,J. B. Priestley, and Malcolm Lowry is not negligible. It’s a commonplace that opposites attract, and in Gurdjieff and Ouspensky’s case, this may have been the scenario. But they often also repel, and at some point in their association, the magnetic energies of these two men began to push them apart.
… The sheep consequently often wandered into the forest, fell into ravines and so on, and above all, they ran away, for they knew that the magician wanted their flesh and their skins, and this they did not like.
At last the magician found a remedy. He hypnotized his sheep and suggested to them, first of all, that they were immortal and that no harm was being done to them when they were skinned; that on the contrary, it would be very good for them and even pleasant; secondly he suggested that the magician was a good master who loved his flock so much that he was ready to do anything in the world for them; and in the third place, he suggested that if anything at all were going to happen to them, it was not going to happen just then, at any rate not that day, and therefore they had no need to think about it. Further, the magician suggested to his sheep that they were not sheep at all; to some of them he suggested that they were lions, to some that they were eagles, to some that they were men, to others that they were magicians. After this all his cares and worries about the sheep came to an end. They never ran away again, but quietly awaited the time when the magician would require their flesh and skins.” ( G.I. Gurdjieff )