Many contemporary counterculturalists and psychologists who trend towards the ” human potential” camp of that vocation – are obsessed with the idea that people need to be deprogrammed or de-brainwashed from the inherited percepts of their culture, as well as from the lazy habits of mind that naturally accrue to everyone’s psyche during the process of living and using language.
A particularly hard-core dilation of this notion posits that we are all sleepwalking through life, and desperate measures are required to wake us up, and smell the coffee. James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Aleister Crowley, G.I. Gurdjieff and Timothy Leary are among the twentieth century thinkers who employed the sleepwalker trope. Gurdjieff and Crowley were infected with the idea through their study of Sufism; and Leary through his study of Gurdjieff. Sufism sees ordinary consciousness as unconsciousness and the project of Sufism is to wake us up and keep us awake to “The Real”.
“To know about real love,” Gurdjieff said, “one must forget all about love and must look for direction.” These notes are from a January 1924 meeting between Gurdjieff and some of his students, as recorded in C.S. Nott’s fascinating Teachings of Gurdjieff: A Pupil’s Journal:
“As we are we cannot love. We love because something in ourselves combines with another’s emanations; this starts pleasant associations, perhaps because of chemico-physical emanations from instinctive centre, emotional centre, or intellectual centre; or it may be from influences of external form; or from feelings — I love you because you love me, or because you don’t love me; suggestions of others, sense of superiority; from pity; and for many other reasons, subjective and egoistic…We project our feelings on others. Anger begets anger. We receive what we give. Everything attracts or repels.”
“To awake. To die. To be born” With these words G.I. 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. They were bizarre teachings…
“There you are- in a fine mess.”
With these words to his pupil, Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, carpet seller, mystic, and author of “All and Everything” , a work considered by some to be the first true anti-Bible since “Thus Spake Zarathustra”, died. It was October 1949.
For more than thirty years Gurdjieff had been provoking contradictory and sometimes violent reflexes among the intelligentsia of two continents. Katherine mansfield and Frank Lloyd Wright were devoted to him; D.H. lawrence and Sigmund Freud made fun of him. For some of those who met him the experience was the most significant of their lives; for others, it was the most ominous. Mysteriously rich, he demanded cash payment for even the slightest service; enormously attractive to women, he was corpulent, often coarse in his manner, and completely bald. He was called prophet, Messiah, Savior, Grand Lama; he was also called a Rasputin, a Beezlebub, a twentieth century Cagliostro. Who was this man, and what was the source of his unnerving effect on people?
“Modern civilization is based on violence and slavery and fine words. But all these fine words about ‘ progress’ and ‘civilization’ are merely words. ”
In such sweeping indictments, Gurdjieff contemptuously dismissed the culture of the West. According to him, modern man is a machine, devoid of a soul. “Can a man who is the product of contemporary civilization and education do anything at all himself and by his own will? No!” Gurdjieff,s scorn for material values and his ingenious adaptation of Eastern mystical techniques gave him a strong appeal to the generation that survived World War I. Today, “All and Everything” is still in print.
Gurdjieff was born in Russia, of Greek descent, and spent his childhood in the Caucasian town of Alexandropol, of which the date of his birth he kept secret. His father was a wealthy peasant fallen on hard times, who became a carpenter in the evenings and told stories for the entertainment of his neighbors. Hearing these stories, says Gurdjieff, “all my childhood games were enriched by my imagining that I was someone who did everything not as it is usually done, but in quite a special way.”
P.D. Ouspensky wrote in Tertium Organum: “Love is the potent force that tears off all masks, and men who run away from love do so in order that they may preserve their masks.”
Hearing legends about gods, devils,and fairies, seeing traveling shamans, gypsy fortunetellers, dervishes, cases of miracle healing and possession, Gurdjieff grew up impatient with the conventional wisdom taught at the seminary he attended. “There exists,” he reasoned, “a something else, which must be the aim and ideal of every more or less thinking man, and it is only this something else which may make a man happy and give him real values, instead of the illusory ‘goods’ with which an ordinary life is always and in everything full.” And so Gurdjieff, while still in his twenties, set out to track doen this “something else.”
On his travels he earned his living “in quite a special way” – as a maker of artificial flowers, a carpet seller, a restaurant owner, a mender of phonographs,a seller of “American canaries” – ordinary sparrows died rainbow colors- a dealer in oil wells and fisheries. He wandered all over the Middle East and Central Asia, sometimes accompanied by a few friends called the “Community of Truth Seekers.” The little band traveled through Tibet, the Hindu Kush, Turkestan, the Gobi, always trying to piece together the essential doctrine behind all great religions and philosophies.
Twenty years passed; years that remain largely unexplained. In his semi-autobiographical “Meetings With Remarkable Men” , Gurdjieff hints only at the first steps in the search that eventually took him into seclusion, as the pupil, perhaps of a group of “secret masters.” The exact source of his teaching will probably never be known. All that is certain is that in 1914, or a little before, he reappeared in Russia. There, in a small café in an obscure part of Moscow, he was introduced to a Russian intellectual and journalist P.D. Ouspensky, who was to become his pupil, his rival, and finally, his James Boswell.
Though skeptical at first, Ouspensky left Gurdjieff’s presence with the feeling that he must meet this man again. Whatever Gurdjieff had learned in his travels, he gave others the impression that he had found what he was seeking. And, now in his mid forties, he was ready, he said, “to actualize in practice what I had taken upon myself as a sacred task” – no less than the awakening of Western man.
C.S. Nott recollection of Crowley meeting Gurdjieff: “Knowing that I was at the Prieure he asked me if I would get him an invitation there. But I did not wish to be responsible for introducing such a man. However, to my surprise, he appeared there a few days later and was given tea in the salon. The children were there, and he said to one of the boys something about his son who he was teaching to be a devil. Gurdjieff got up and spoke to the boy, who thereupon took no further notice of Crowley. There was some talk between Crowley and Gurdjieff, who kept a sharp watch on him all the time. I got the strong impression of two magicians, the white and the black- the one strong, powerful, full of light; the other also powerful but heavy, dull and ignorant. Though “black”” was too strong a word for Crowley; he never understood the meaning of real black magic, yet hundreds of people came under his “spell”. He was clever. But as Gurdjieff says: “He is stupid who is clever.”
ADDENDUM: ( Terry Winter Owens )
In the early 1960s, at the height of the “Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out,” LSD madness, Richard Alpert (now known as Ram Dass) and Ralph Metzner became interested in the ideas of Gurdjieff. Alpert and Metzner were two thirds of the Harvard trio of professors who championed LSD and were asked to leave the university. Metzner was at that time the editor of The Psychedelic Review. Alpert and Timothy Leary had formed the Castalia Foundation with headquarters in a mansion on a 2,500 acre estate in Millbrook, New York, made available to them, it is said, by the Hitchcock family.
Mr. Nyland was widely known in those days as one of the most authoritative students of Gurdjieff. Although Mr. Nyland always made it clear that he adamantly opposed all drug use, from marijuana to LSD, he wasn’t one to summarily dismiss a person because of drug use. Nyland was sympathetic to people who were interested in the Work and he was more apt to be accepting than judgmental. But most assuredly, the focus of his work with groups and with individuals was on pursuing the practical application of the Gurdjieff ideas in daily life, and not on drug rehabilitation.
And so it came about that Alpert and Metzner were allowed to join the Nyland groups which in those days met outside of the Gurdjieff Foundation. One day Alpert and Metzner approached Mr. Nyland with a gift offering from Timothy Leary: a Steinway concert grand piano….
We knocked on the front door and were told that Tim Leary was expecting us and would we please wait until he was summoned. The house was dark (perhaps the electricity had been turned off?). In short order, Leary appeared and greeted us very warmly. He was quite charming and friendly, and we chatted a bit. He said that he would like to give us the cook’s tour. We politely declined protesting that it was a long drive back to the city, but he was insistent. He left, and soon a young woman came to show us around.
To say that the place looked like an opium den would deny its disarray and raunchiness. Yes, we had all seen apartments in the East Village with bare mattresses on the floor, huge candles melted into Salvador Dali shapes and people in various states of undress and dysfunctionality—but Millbrook was something else again. And, yes, we repeatedly turned down offers of refreshment. Finally, standing my ground and refusing to continue the tour, I explained that we had come explicitly to try out the piano. “Oh, the piano! Of course. It’s on the back porch.” The back porch?
There on the back porch was a disemboweled piano. The innards, the strings and the frame were leaning drunkenly against a wall on which clothes hangers, kitchen utensils, tools, screwdrivers, and the like were hung. Our guide picked up a tire wrench and ran it up and down the length of the strings. “We liberated the piano,” she said blissfully. “Where is the rest of the piano, the keyboard, the case, the action?” I asked stupidly. She did not answer but languidly ran a mop handle along the strings to demonstrate that I was being boringly conventional and obviously didn’t know the first thing about a piano’s potential. Other people appeared and joined in this concert-from-hell. We slipped away unnoticed.
Mr. Nyland did not seem surprised when we told him about the piano nor did he try to justify having us look into the mouth of a gift horse.