big questions

Who was Gurdjieff?

Gurdjieff was born at some point between 1866 and 1877 of Greek and Armenian heritage in Central Asia, a crossroads of many nationalities, languages and religions. He was educated for both the priesthood and medicine, reflecting his later interest in both science and religion. As a young man, he became convinced that neither science nor religion adequately addressed the meaning of life on earth, human life in particular, or the responsibility of individual humans in the great cosmic drama. Believing that ancient knowledge held answers to these questions — answers that had been lost to contemporary man — he set out on a twenty-year exploration with companions of similar interests and wide training in different disciplines to search for remnants of this ancient understanding. What he discovered during his travels in Asia, Africa and the Middle East became the foundation for his understanding of how to “unite the Wisdom of the East with the Knowledge of the West” into a practical methodology designed for the Western “logical” mind. He first began to teach in Russia in 1912. Forced by spreading revolution and world war to continually move his “school” across many countries, he finally settled in Paris, where he taught until his death in 1949. During this time, he drew to him as pupils many of the great intellectuals and artists of his time. His students subsequently carried his teachings to all continents and many countries around the world.

What are the central ideas of Gurdjieff’s teaching?

The ideas Gurdjieff discovered on his search were, for his time, startling and brought an entirely new way of thinking about these big questions. Today, many of these ideas and phrases have entered contemporary society as a result of decades of effort by his students to make them known. However, the depth, subtlety, underlying complexity and profound implications of these ideas can be discovered only through long practice of the accompanying methods he introduced. These methods aim to alter the structure of the nervous system so that one can directly “experience” the underlying reality behind these ideas, and not just “know” about them intellectually.

In reading about the ideas below, familiarity with the wording from other contemporary traditions can easily lead to a quick intellectual assumption that one already knows what these words and concepts mean. To approach this system requires suspension of both belief and disbelief. Gurdjieff said that nothing can be truly understood, or be of practical use, unless personally confirmed. He essentially said to believe nothing nor anyone, including himself, unless this condition could be met by the individual.

One reason for this is that contemporary man lives in a psychological state of conditioned beliefs and reactions resulting in a loss of individuality and inability to think for oneself, which produces a near continuous state of semi-hypnotic “waking sleep” in which Reality is hidden from us. Gurdjieff said that there are four basic states of “consciousness”

  1. actual sleep in which we lose consciousness and experience dreams
  2. what we call our waking consciousness, but which he says is really a state of “waking sleep” in which our impressions, thoughts, associations, reactions and interpretations of meaning are contaminated by a lifetime of conditioned patterning that deludes our sense of reality
  3. a state in which we are “awake” (free of our societally conditioned programming) so that we can see a different objective reality about ourself, others and the world around us
  4. a state in which we can be connected with the Higher Mind permeating a conscious universe.

Gurdjieff also foresaw what brain researchers are only now at the edge of recognizing. He said we have three distinct arenas of functioning:

  • our material-sensory physical body
  • our world of feelings, intuitions, and values
  • the realm of meaning, and intellectual theorizing and conceptual functioning.

Furthermore, he insisted that the majority of our so-called intellectual functioning is a mechanical, parroting associative system that can only regurgitate what has already been learned by rote, and has nothing to do with real creativity or the higher potential of real “Intellect”. He taught that these three “centers” or “brains” ought to function together in harmonious integration, but rarely do so. This dysfunction leads to our inconsistencies, mood swings, changes of mind and the general instability of our personalities. Reuniting these three brains so that the body, the heart and the mind are coordinated is a prerequisite for experiencing the third state of consciousness. Without this integration, we actually have no single “I”, but rather are a collection of small fractured “personalities” — little “I”s — each pulling for its own interests from one day, one hour, one moment to the next. As ancient sources tell us, “Man is Legion.”

Gurdjieff also brings a view of the universe and man’s place and potential in it, based on the principles of relativity. What is understood one way at a given “level” or perspective, can be very differently understood at a different “level” or perspective. He invites us to discover the true meaning of the ancient statement, “As Above, So Below.” He recognizes the inner psychological and emotional world of humans as a bridge between the outer world of the senses and the underlying dynamics of a living, intelligent universe. Each of us is an integral part of that universe and so both psychological and cosmological study are essential for investigating our true nature and purpose on Earth.

One way Gurdjieff approached this integration was to observe that organic life is a thin film covering the surface of the planet. It is a single living organism, the purpose of which is to transform energy from the sun and earth through digestion of other organic forms: by eating, breathing air, and “ingesting” through the nervous system pathways of sensory, emotional and mental impressions. Each of the “brains” is sensitive to and processes differently the various vibrational wavelengths from the electromagnetic spectrum. Thus, he says, there are actually three sources of “food”: organic, air and impressions. The first and second “brains” serve the purposes of life on Earth. As a creature with a third “brain”, man has the potential to transform energies for a purpose higher than organic life, if those capacities are realized and developed.

But this is not guaranteed. Breaking starkly with traditional contemporary Western religion, Gurdjieff declares that man is not born with a “Soul”, but rather has to “make one” before he dies in order to fulfill this promise. He explains that “Man is a self-developing organism” which must learn how to fulfill this responsibility. It is the role of “schools” or “spiritual ways”, or “ancient wisdom”, to pass on to each generation of seekers the hidden science of this process.

Gurdjieff brought a practice which can help us gain authentic insight into our conditioned, habitual, self-centered ways of being, so that we may live more consciously, wakefully, and relationally a life of selfless service no longer enthralled by distortions of ego. He says that man is born with the possibility of transforming into a different type of human with these capacities, but that this doesn’t happen accidentally or in the normal course of life. It is the possibility of such transformation that is the aim of all spiritual traditions. Gurdjieff found a practical way for our modern times.

How is the path Gurdjieff developed different from other traditions?

Gurdjieff says that all traditions seek to awaken the sleeping potential in the hearts and minds of men.  He posits that each begins with one of the centers to develop a capacity to escape mechanical control of that brain over our thoughts, feelings or bodily manifestations. Thus he says there are three traditional Ways” to accomplish this. He calls them the Way of the Fakir, the Way of the Monk and the Way of the Yogi. 

Spiritual traditions which focus first, or primarily, on developing Will over the physical body are the Way of the Fakir. Those that seek to first transform the feelings and open the heart are the Way of the Monk. Those that focus on control of the mind represent the Yogi tradition.

Gurdjieff says that each of these typically require leaving ordinary life, and require many years of practice. If, at the end of that time, the aim has been realized and control of that functional center has been achieved, then the adept must find a different school to begin training on the other two brains. Gurdjieff proposed Fourth Way”, an approach that addressed all three brains simultaneously and without the necessity of leaving ordinary life. In fact, he stated, the conditions of the life we are in when we begin on the Fourth Way are optimal for any individual, since the life we have made up to that point is a reflection of what we are at that stage of our life, and must be understood in order to open to a higher understanding of one’s potential. Thus “Karma” becomes the “food” and we can begin to “digest” our fate up to that point.

Gurdjieff also provides specific exercises and practices to develop an Objective Attention which can be intentionally directed into all three brains at the same time. This provides an overlapping awareness of thought, feeling and sensation, which produces an “Awakened” state of Objective Consciousness. These exercises seek to expand, and bring under intentional directed control, the Attention, a “cosmic energy” without which we cannot develop our potential. The deeper attention can then be intentionally directed into all three brains simultaneously in the course of ordinary life. The potential result is fulfillment of the ancient admonitions to “Know Thyself” and “To be in Life but not of it” (not controlled by it). These practices include ancient sacred dances and movements which are unique to this training.

Why is there war? Is violence inevitable?

Gurdjieff posited two reasons for war and violence. Psychologically, there are periods of feeling dissatisfied with the circumstances of one’s life.  At such times, unless there is sufficient objective historical psychological perspective on the causes of these reactions from ones conditioning, the typical reaction is to look for someone or something to blame. Thus there appears a negative response, either directed at oneself or at outside factors. When large groups have this reaction at the same time, a mob response can occur. When this energy is harnessed by politicians and dictators, the mass psychosis of war can occur. Gurdjieff, in his teaching style of often using myth and metaphor, also said that these enormous explosions of negative energy serve a cosmic purpose and can be influenced by factors beyond Earth. At this time in the development of humankind, these large events cannot be avoided entirely because of the generally low level of consciousness among the mass of people which leaves them vulnerable to the egoism of ethically corrupt leaders.  Individual humans can learn to avoid personal negativity and eliminate war both within themselves and in their relationships. On the large scale however, Gurdjieff said it would take a very long time for humanity as a whole to develop to the point where war would fade away completely. Historically, political and social efforts to force people to be “good” or to behave as leaders wish, inevitably lead to violent reaction. Each person must make the decision to individually struggle to find a way to become objective about their own negativity and egoism. No one can do that work for us or impose it from the outside.

Why am I so inconsistent, moody, unreliable?

Gurdjieff says a prime reason most people will not make sustained effort over years to discover who they are is that they already believe they know. He says our inner world is dominated by many small “i’s”, each of which vie to take control of our thoughts, feelings and behaviors for the moment, each using the pronoun “I” and causing the illusion that we are a singular personality, a single psychology person.  Each of these fragments has its own version of history, its own set of moods, postures and behaviors.  This fragmentation segregates our memories and leads to inconsistencies, fluctuating opinions and attitudes.  We are much more likely to see this in others than ourselves because, as Gurdjieff tells us, we don’t “remember ourself”, we are not objectively aware of ourself in the process of daily life and so do not see our inconsistencies as clearly as do others.  But, we certainly can be aware of shifting moods and the difficulty of maintaining an aim over time. Gurdjieff says each of the brains has its own life interests, preferences, sense of timing.  Thus, he says, from another angle we have three different personalities living within us.  We all know the puzzlement of recognizing when heart and head don’t agree or the “spirit is strong but the flesh is week”, when I am of ” two minds” or ” I can’t make up my mind” etc.  This is due, he says, to lack of simultaneous awareness in the three centers and an understanding about how to facilitate their working with each other.

You mention meaning – what does meaning mean?

Why make effort? Without a sense of purpose in a situation, what would motivate us to do anything?  Life is programmed to sustain itself with the minimum effort necessary. Energy is hard to come by and easy to dissipate. How do we decide on what to expend our normal daily supply of energy – physical, emotional or mental?  Motivation is about motion.  What motivates ones activities? The effort and risk involved must have a degree of value in terms of a wished for outcome, otherwise the effort is not begun or dissipates before completion. Most of our responses to situations are short term and often reflect habitual reactions.  What can sustain effort over the long term, through difficulties and failures?

The required ongoing source of such sustaining energy is of an emotional nature and comes from the value we place on the effort and outcome. It is in this sense that we talk about “Meaning”. What has value for us has meaning. What it “means” is up to the individual. We can talk about it as a subjective personal “dream”, hope, or wish. It can also be more objective, such as an intuition that something mysterious lies behind life or that there seems to be purpose and intelligence to the Universe or that my personal existence must have reason beyond my individual comfort and satisfaction with achievements gained in social or monetary life experiences.  It is this intuited sense of hidden meaning behind existence that can set into motion an extended, perhaps lifelong, search for a personal confrontation with the underlying mystery of everything.

The action of our deeply held wishes may be directed outward toward life achievements or inside towards the mystery of who and what “I” am and my responsibility for the life temporarily on loan to me. If I believe existence is an accident governed by blind random forces, then I might find meaning only in making money, living comfortably, gaining recognition and then waiting to die. If I believe that Life and the Universe are manifestations of an unfathomable Intelligence, that everything is a small but integrated part of a larger Whole with a role to play in that Whole, then the energy at my disposal will be directed toward understanding my responsibility for my place in this drama greater than myself.

What does “Work on myself” mean?

This is a phrase now in common usage. In one sense it implies taking responsibility for my manifestations, inner and/or outer. The direction of such attention and effort depends on what about myself I want to change or improve. We can “work on” developing a particular skill or talent through education and practice.  But do we know how to “change oneself”, ones personality, quality of “Being”?  Gurdjieff says our responsibility as “three-brained” life forms is to learn, first, how to stop wasting the daily amount of energy we are given to work with just by being alive and then second, how to create energy of a finer quality that is necessary for the process of transforming ourselves into a being who can live more consciously.  Such a transformed human can then transform universal energies into finer gradations which are needed by the larger Whole. It is for this “Work on Oneself” that Gurdjieff offers a practical method.

It is a long, slow process requiring patience, perseverance and often a suspension of belief and disbelief until ones experiences begin to show the reality and the Way to what cannot really be described I words. It also requires a willingness to confront the entirety of oneself, especially the qualities not consciously contained in the daily self- image.  To transform into a human who can be free of conditioned reactions to the outside world, we must also become free from inner reactions to my conditioned sense of myself. I have to slowly “die” to my understanding of who and what I believe I am to be ” reborn” into an entirely new understanding and acceptance. It has been said that true spiritual work is not for the faint of heart. 

This all seems to be about a single self: “understanding myself”, “working on myself”. Do I have responsibility for anything other than myself.

Our ordinary sense of responsibility rests upon our conditioned beliefs and reactions. The saying, ” The saying that road to hell is paved with good intentions” reflects how we often fail to see far enough ahead and the best efforts can lead to unexpected results. Gurdjieff observes that the problems in life are created, for the most part, by people interacting in a state of “waking sleep”. If people were in a state of Self Remembering, most of these situations would not have occurred.  The problems are often compounded when solutions are attempted by other people also in a state of ” waking sleep”. In a sense, many of our efforts to “help” are examples of the blind a leading the blind.

This is not to say that we should not try to due “good” in our communities. In a sense, what we “do” outside of ourselves is not the issue from the stand point of inner “work on oneself”. How we engage, the motivation for our engagement, our aim in the effort, the degree to which our self-image and ego are involved, our degree of openness to others and, above all, the psychological state we are in when engaged, are critical in both the outcome of the effort  outside and the results of the effort inside to stay “Awake”. We must learn to be actively directing and holding Attention in all three brains while engaged to have a chance to see both ourself and the situation more objectively. Otherwise we are only joining the sleeping mass of people “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic”. We can use any situation as a condition for trying to remain awake. It might as well be one designed to be helpful to someone.  But if we are not able to ” Remember ourself” in the process, we lose the opportunity to develop the hidden potential for Consciousness

Ultimately Gurdjieff’s Work is designed to show us how to serve and be able to serve the highest needs of the Creative which is man’s ultimate responsibility. The surrender of egoism is the the foundation for real service, to serve a Universal Will greater than my own.