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Biographies > George Gurdjieff - Mysterious Trickster

by Peter Holleran

   “One must do everything one can and then say ‘God have mercy!”

   Early in life George Gurdjieff (1877-1949) was filled with a burning desire for self-understanding that moved him to travel widely throughout Asia seeking human beings in communion with truth. Some of his most important contacts were in Afghanistan where he spent a long time in a monastery in Bukhara and imbibed the teachings of the Naqshbandi order of Sufis.(1) He also claimed to have rediscovered the ancient "Sarmoung Brotherhood", whose teaching contained esoteric knowledge that had been forgotten by most of the human race. [For more on this see The People of the Tradition on this website].

   Osho summarizes Gurdjieff's early life and period of seeking:

   "Gurdjieff remembers that when his grandfather was dying -- he was only nine years old -- the grandfather called him. He loved the boy very much and he told the boy, "I don't have much to give to you, but departing from the world I would like to give you something. I can only give you one piece of advice that has helped me; it was given to me by my father, and he was also dying when he gave it to me. I am dying. You are too young, you may not be able to understand it right now, but remember, a day will come when you will understand. Whenever you find yourself capable of following my advice, follow it, and you will never be in misery. You can avoid the hell of life."

   "And what was the advice? Just this sutra -- not exactly in these words. He said to Gurdjieff, "Remember one thing: if you want to do any bad thing, postpone it for tomorrow; and if you want to do something good, do it immediately -- because postponement is a way of not doing. And bad has not to be done, and good has to be done. For example," the old man said, "if somebody insults you and you feel angry, enraged, tell him that you will come after twenty-four hours and answer him." Gurdjieff remembers, "That advice transformed my whole life. Although I was too young, only nine years old, I tried it just out of curiosity. Some boy would insult me or would hurt me or would say something nasty, and I would remember my old dying grandfather and I would tell the boy, 'I will have to wait; I have promised an old man. After twenty-four hours I will answer you."

   "And it always happened," Gurdjieff remembers, "that either I would come to conclude that he was right, that whatsoever he had said LOOKED nasty but it was true about me.... He was saying, 'You are a thief,' and that is true, I am a thief. He was saying, 'You are insincere,' and that is true -- I am insincere." So he would go and thank the boy: "You pointed out something true about me. You brought up a true facet of my being which was not clear to me. You made me more conscious about myself. I am immensely grateful." Or, after twenty-four hours' thinking, he would come to conclude that, "That man or that boy is absolutely wrong. It has nothing to do with me." Then there is no point in answer-ing; he would not go back to the boy. If something is utterly wrong, why become enraged? This is a big world, millions of people are there; you cannot go answering everybody, otherwise your whole life will be wasted. And there is no need either."

   "Gurdjieff, when he was very young, only twelve years of age, became part of a party of seekers: thirty people who made a decision that they would go to the different parts of the world and find out whether truth was only talk or there were a few people who had known it. Just a twelve-year-old boy, but he was chosen to join the party for the simple reason that he had great stamina, he had great power."

   "One thing was certain about him: whatsoever he decided, he would risk all for it. He would not look back, he would never escape even if he had to lose his life he would lose his life. And three times he was almost shot dead – almost, but he pulled himself back into life somehow; the purpose was still unfulfilled. Those thirty people traveled all over the world. They came to India, they went to Tibet and the whole Middle East, all the Sufi monasteries, all the Himalayan monasteries. And they had decided to come back to a certain place in the Middle East and to relate whatsoever they had gained; after each twelve years they were going to meet. At the end of the first twelve years almost half of them did not return; they must have died somehow, or forgotten the mission, or become entangled somewhere. Somebody must have got married, fallen in love. A thousand and one things can happen – people are accident-prone. Only fifteen people returned. And after the next twelve years only three people came back. And the third time only Gurdjieff was there, all the others had disappeared. What happened to them nobody knows."

   The one central principle that Gurdjieff obtained from his studies was that man is asleep, spending his entire life in self-forgetfulness, helplessly bound to a mechanical existence. Man is a machine whose life is nothing more than a series of reactive emotional responses-to definite stimuli. When a man asked how he could become free from these binding mechanisms Gurdjieff responded by saying that he had just made the first step towards developing free will.

   The "Work" he proposed aims at Self-Remembrance, which produces an ordeal of struggle between essence (Self) and personality. In this process there is an inevitable production of psycho-physical friction or "heat" (tapas) as an assault is made on the egoic defense mechanisms. One must be willing to endure intentional suffering as the ordeal of passage is made from personality to essence. (2) Gurdjieff believed, furthermore, that hard physical work was necessary to purify body and mind in order to facilitate this process. He exhorted his students to continually press beyond the limits of their endurance until they achieved their spiritual "second wind".

   Late in life, concerned with the perpetuity of his work, Gurdjieff wrote three books (All and Everything (also published as Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson), Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life is Real only Then, When "I Am"). His modus operandi was, in his words, to "bury the dog." By this is meant that he buried the details of his teachings like rare jewels for the serious student to dig up and make his own, somewhat similar to the technique of the Pythagoreans. Indeed, much of Gurdjieff's teachings have been argued to have been borrowed from the Greeks [see Digging Up The Dog: The Greek Roots of Gurdjieff's Esoteric Ideas by George Latura Beke. He writes:

   "When asked to define his teaching, the world-traveler and mystic seeker George Ivanovich Gurdjieff characterized it as "esoteric Christianity." Where did this esoteric Christianity come from? According to Gurdjieff, "Everything Christian came from old Greek, then they spoil. All, all comes from Greek..." Although Gurdjieff spent time in Tibet, and has often been linked to the Sufis he encountered on his travels, his esoteric ideas had their roots in his own backyard, where his Greek father, a bard steeped in the ancient oral tradition, recited thousands of lines of ancient sagas from memory. Reading Gurdjieff's magnum opus, "All and Everything," the informed reader cannot fail to notice the many correspondences between ancient Greek texts and Gurdjieff's ideas. The ancient Greeks carried the torch of esoteric knowledge for well over a thousand years, and Gurdjieff lays out many of their teachings, encrypted in the Pythagorean method he liked to refer to as "burying the dog." (3)

   The reader will also like to read the chapter on Greek influences in Gurdjieff's writings from G. I. Gurdjieff: Armenian Roots, Global Branches]. Gurdjieff's literary method, as he explained to his editors, was to “bury” every nugget of information. To gain any true understanding, we are forced to dig. When we dig, we work; we labor and toil, and finally find. And then, every hard-won nugget becomes our own, an integral part of our understanding, which we will not forget. The ideas he was concerned with were not meant to come into our possession without exceptional efforts, continuing efforts of the kind that only those who valued them most would ever put forth. Thus, his writing is rather difficult and dense, and his teachings are better known and understood through the works of his students Ouspensky, Bennett, and Nicoll. These three are still difficult; the following, however, is but one example of the often impenetrable and difficult-to-compare-with-other-school nature of Gurdjieff's own writing:

   "First of all, it must be said that in the outpourings of various occultists and other will-less parasites, when they discuss spiritual questions, not everything is entirely wrong. What they call the "soul" does really exist, but not everybody necessarily has one. A soul is not born with man and can neither unfold nor take form in him so long as his body is not fully developed. It is a luxury that can only appear and attain completion in the period of "responsible age," that is to say, in a man's maturity. The soul, like the physical body, is also matter—only, it consists of "finer" matter. The matter from which the soul is formed and from which it later nourishes and perfects itself is, in general, elaborated during the processes that take place between the two essential forces upon which the entire Universe is founded."

   [Here he may be referring to what the Hindus call Purusha-Prakriti.]

   In the first chapter of Beelzebub's Tales, Gurdjieff made his teaching intentions clear:

   “To destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world." (4)

   The Gurdjieffian practice has many elements in common with the basic work required in all authentic spiritual traditions, in particular that of the Sufis, but it some respects tends to be rather open-ended, and in any case is now bereft of the guidance and grace of a fully-illumined teacher. The emphasis it places on insight could be balanced, completed, and reconciled with the teaching of the life-current or spirit-energy as given by the adepts in the high-Hindu, Buddhist, and Christian traditions, as well as the direct seeing or self-inquiry of contemporary non-dual teachers. Still, the fierce way Gurdjieff worked with disciples is reflected by that of many teachers. One in particular was his method of “creating situations.” This was a method, consciously brought about, to duplicate what life in general is trying to do unconsciously, wherein, for example, two disciples with certain conflicting traits are made to work together for the purpose of revealing hidden tendencies that stand in the way of their becoming awake. On one such month-long occasion out of thirty students only three remained after the teaching period was over, among them Gurdjieff’s chief disciple, Ouspensky, who said he would never leave him under any conditions. For more on this see Gurdjieff’s Meditations to Disciples by Osho.

   Pema Chodron tells an amusing story of Gurdjieff's particular manner of teaching:

   "There was a man in his community who was really bad-tempered. Nobody could stand this guy because he was so prickly. Every little thing caused him to spin off into a tantrum. Everything irritated him. he complained constantly, so everyone felt the need to tiptoe around him because anything that might be said could cause him to explode. People just wished he would go away."

   "Gurdjieff liked to make his students do things that were completely meaningless. One day there were about forty people out cutting up a lawn into little pieces and moving it to another place in the grounds. This was too much for this fellow, it was the last straw. he blew up, stormed out, got in his car, and drive off, whereupon there was a spontaneous celebration. people were thrilled, so happy he has gone. But when they told Gurdjieff what had happened, he said, "Oh no!" and went after him in his car."

   "Three days later they both came back. That night when Gurdjieff's attendant was serving him his supper, he asked, "Sir, why did you bring him back?" Gurdjieff answered in a very low voice, "You're not going to believe this, and this is just between you and me; you must tell no one. I pay him to stay here."

   At one time John Bennett believed that Pak Subuh was the "Awakener of Conscience" mentioned in All and Everything who was supposedly destined to complete the work of Gurdjieff. Their teachings are very different, however (which is perhaps why he was to be the completion), and Bennett is not joined in this view by the majority of Gurdjieff students.

   Gurdjieff evidently had yogic powers of a sort, but controversy exists over his morals and ethics, no doubt due to his use of "crazy-wise" methods. Many students were pushed to extremes of discipline, and a few went over the edge. This might be looked upon as the mark of a good teacher, using forceful means for the benefit of his disciples, but many thought otherwise. Rom Landau wrote:

   "Some of his pupils would at times complain that they could no longer support Gurdjieff's violent temper, his apparent greed for money, or the extravagance of his private life." (5)

   John Bennett said that

   "(Gurdjieff) spoke of women in terms that would have better suited a fanatical Muslim polygamist than a Christian, boasting that he had many children by different women, and that women were for him only the means to an end." (6)

   Every teacher has his detractors, particularly those teachers who make bold, dramatic use of the energies of life for teaching purposes, but it is not our intent to criticize character. Teachers can make mistakes, however, and the ways of anyone teacher are not necessarily the way for all students. Gurdjieff used strong and shocking means to reveal his students to themselves, and he particularly liked to hit upon the "sex nerve" and the "pocketbook nerve". He said that "nothing shows up people so much as their attitude toward money", and through casual incidents he delighted in awakening people to the hypocrisy of their gentile ways. He liked to keep people on the edge of financial ruin, creating one disaster after another, saying that if they felt too comfortable they would not grow.

   The "crazy-wise" teaching methods have a long history, and must always be seen in context. What works for some, my not work for others, and cannot be imitated. What is most important to remember about a teacher, says Arthur Deikman, is this :

   "Teachers will be imperfect. What you need to be able to count on is them doing their job." (6a)

   Gurdjieff apparently had yogic powers, and it is said that he purposely helped to delay the death of his wife a few more days because she was close to enlightenment. Through his help it is claimed that she would not need to come back to this world because she did in fact attain awakening.

   As mentioned earlier, Gurdjieff (because of his obscure writing style) is better understood through his interpreters. Indeed, when writing All and Everything, Gurdjieff continually changed his wording in this long book whenever he saw that disciples understood what he had written! Again, this was an example of his "burying the dog." He felt that the work was more useful when one was kept in a state of confusion on the level of the mind, forcing one to dig deeper for the truth.

   John Bennett summarizes his basic form of arqument:

   "You think you know who you are and what you are; but you do not know either what slaves you now are, or how free you might become. Man can do nothing: he is a machine controlled by external influences, not by his own will, which is an illusion. He is asleep. He has no permanent self that he can call 'I'. Because he is not one but many; his moods, his impulses, his very sense of his own existence are no more than a constant flux...Make the experiment of trying to remember your own existence and you will find that you cannot remember yourselves even for two minutes. How can man, who cannot remember who and what he is, who does not know the forces that move him to action, pretend that he can do anything?"

   The "Fourth Way" was Gurdjieff's term for the way taught in his system. According to him, there are three traditional paths, those of the faqir, the monk, and the yogi. The faqir works on disciplining the physical body with harsh austerities. The monk works on his emotions with prayer, fasting, and meditation. The yogi attempts to discipline his mind and alter his state of consciousness. “The fourth way" is that of simultaneously working on the other three dimensions (which correspond with the three bodies: physical, emotional or astral, and mental (which Gurdjieff called the spiritual) while applying the process of self-observation to make oneself less mechanical. This is the way of the "cunning man", who thus surpassed the faqir, the monk, and the yogi and came to know the true “I " which was the presiding ego, the 'divine' body, the owner of the other three bodies. With this language, almost theosophical in character, one can see the possible limit of Gurdjieff’s teachings in encompassing the higher non-dual philosophy. How many of Gurdjieff's followers found the Self, as opposed to the "I" or 'ego-soul'? How many knew the 'I AM'? Did Gurdjieff himself attain such realization? Anthony Damiani suggests that the Gurdjieff work did not produce realization of the subject, but only an objective "fourth state," perhaps a purified ahamkara:

   "If you go to a higher level than this one, it will still be a content of consciousness [rather than consciousness itself]; and if you go up to an even higher level, or even to the level of being itself, there will always be a content of consciousness. Unfortunately this is an idea which neither Ouspensky or Gurdjieff could grasp. Although Ouspensky talks about the fourth state of consciousness, he fails to understand that it could be analyzed just as at the empirical level or any level....This is true of all the seven levels of existence, even if you live in the angelic world. So if someone comes from another level of existence and said, "Yes, but your analysis doesn't hold for my plane of existence" I would say, "Is it a content? Is it an experience for you? Is it a world that you are perceiving? Is there a perception taking place? You know it? Yes? Then it's subject to the same analysis." That's how it cuts through everything and that's why this teaching is direct and the most comprehensive one you will find. This teaching has been around for thousands of years and it won't disappear." (8)

   The important purpose of the Gurdjieff work was to reveal the chief defense mechanism that prevents the waking state from manifesting. E.J. Gold, a contemporary teacher sympathetic to the Fourth Way school explains:

   "Each individual has a particular defense mechanism called the chronic (Gurdjieff's 'chief feature') which is triggered off whenever the machine (the egoic body-mind) is threatened with awakening.

   The nearer the waking state, the more profound the manifestations produced by the defense mechanisms. Then, when the waking state no longer threatens, the defense mechanism tends to subside."

And again:

   "The machine has developed an automatic defense mechanism against the waking state, which often takes the form of some chronic negative emotion such as anger, sarcasm, cynicism, self-isolation, fear, paranoia, hysteria, resentment, envy, pettiness, jealousy, vengefulness, greed, piety, boredom, grief, loneliness, anxiety, helplessness, stupidity, hatred, compulsiveness, and so on, so that it can continue to function with significance and importance according to the expectations of others." (9)

   The "chronic" or "chief feature" binds up a great deal of life-energy and keeps one "asleep" to his essential self, or essence. Gurdjieff felt it was imperative for a true teacher and school to provide the "shocks" necessary to reveal to an individual this chief feature, as it is nearly impossible to do so by oneself. (Gold says that one way to get a glimpse of the chronic is to observe one's first reaction when someone forceably awakens you in the middle of the night. The "cranky animal" is the machine in its survival mode).

   Paradoxically, one who is correctly working on himself in the Gurdjieffian fashion will go through a period when he appears anything but more peaceful and loving, as his chief defense mechanism is being brought to consciousness. Gold states that such a person is "about as pleasant to live with as an angry camel." This is, however, a healthy advance over the mediocre existence of the ordinary man, whose sole purpose is to maintain the effort of self-enclosure and self-survival, which is another description of the sleeping state of the machine.

   The work must go on even after a glimpse of awakening, as the defense structures are so strong. Says Gurdjieff:

   "As soon as man awakens for a moment and opens his eyes, all the forces that caused him to fall asleep begin to act upon him with tenfold energy and he immediately falls asleep again, very often dreaming that he is awake or is awakening."

   The process that Gurdjieff partially understood and the means he employed were intended to produce a crisis of self-understanding where one can become responsible for his egoic fixated behavior patterning. The insight or glimpses thus gained serves as the enlightened means for a greater, more encompassing spiritual process that is then truly possible. Then grace becomes the prime mover in one's case, and the strenuous, muscular efforts which Gurdjieff advocated become secondary and unnecessary. Gurdjieff did not, it appears, acknowledge this full scope of the spiritual process, although he may himself have had glimpses. It is hard to tell because of the cryptic nature of his life and teachings. Another thing needs mentioning. As PB pointed out:

   "There is one important quality that seems to be missing from the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky training, and that is the heart element of love." (10)

   All were not capable of withstanding the unrelenting demands and idiosyncracies of the Gurdjieffian hard school. His work, nevertheless, has much practical value, and all said here barely scratches the surface of his doctrines. When he died in 1949 he left no one appointed successor, but many groups continue to meet to study his teachings and engage the Work.

   Interesting, Gurdjieff was a merchant adventurer at some points in his colorful life. He said that anyone who successfully employed at least 20 other people must be considered at least partially enlightened and a type of guru. Self-made wealthy people may not be saints or mystics or intellectuals or even especially thoughtful or moral. But they've proven one thing: they can create and conserve wealth. And they've thereby eased everyone's path to further accomplishments.

   For an excellent summary of many aspects of Gurdjieff’s work with disciples, please see the very enjoyable and reader-friendly writing by Osho entitled George Gurdjieff’s Teachings.

1. The great Mullah Nasrudin belonged to this order. His simple tales warning aspirant of self-deception have been popularized by Idries Shah.
1a. Osho, internet post
2. Gurdjieff went so far as to teach that personality and essence inhabited different parts of the brain, although he did not specify which. Author Colin Wilson (G.I. Gurdjieff: The War Against' Sleep) suggests that personality, is a left-brain phenomenon, while essence belongs to the right-brain. To Gurdjieff a baby is only essence, but when personality develops at the age of six or seven the essence ceases to grow. (Some say this happens even earlier, by the age of two). The practice he taught was designed to re-establish the dominance of essence over personality, and re-unite both consciousnesses so that a more complete development could be realized.
3. George Latura Beke, Digging Up The Dog: The Greek Roots of Gurdjieff's Esoteric Ideas, p.
4. Gurdjieff, G.I. Beelzebub’s Tales, 1
4a. Eden Steinberg, ed., The Pocket Pema Chodron (Boston, MA: Shambhala Publications, Inc., 2008), p. 57-58
5. Rom Landau, God Is My Adventure (as quoted in: Colin Wilson, G.I. Gurdjieff: The War Against Sleep (Wellingborough, Northamptonshire: The Aquarian Press, 1986), p. 89
6. J.G. Bennett, Witness: The Autobiography of J.G. Bennett (Turnstone Press, 1974), p. 258
6a. quoted in Mariana Caplan, The Guru Question (Boulder, Colorado: Sounds True, Inc., 2011), p. 213
7. J.G. Bennett, op. cit., p. 87
8. Anthony Damiani, Looking Into Mind (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1990), p. 105
9. E.J. Gold, The Human Biological Machine as a Transformational Apparatus (Nevada City, CA: IDHHB, INC, 1986), p. 115-116
10. The Notebooks of Paul Brunton (Burdett, New York: Larson Publications, 1987), Vol. 11, 11.51