Monday, December 04, 2023
  A Figure Who Drops Into History  
Great, inexplicable mystery

From: zeropoint

Over the course of the many years that we have studied ‘the fourth way,’ Chris and I have had ample reason and opportunity to ponder why Gurdjieff’s thought has had such an insignificant impact on Western academic psychology.

Stated most simply, the answer is that almost no one in Psychology has ever heard of Gurdjieff.

That raises, in turn, the question of accounting for his virtual anonymity. The answer, as we have come to understand it, is complicated, and often exceedingly subtle–perhaps more so than we are capable of supposing.

However, I think it can be asserted safely that, as one studies and comes to understand the essentially contrary histories, methods, aims, and functions of modern Western psychology and the esoteric tradition of which Gurdjieff was a part, what originally seems a great, inexplicable mystery soon becomes comprehensible, if not sensible.


Above all else, academic psychologists have ignored the teachings of Gurdjieff and other esoteric masters and sages because they equate the latter tradition with “mysticism.”  Mysticism, psychologists reason, involves the mysterious romancing of the unprovable and the ineffable: the cultivation of superstition and lunacy.  Such activity is hardly compatible with science.  Ergo, there is neither room nor reason, within the scientific approach to the study of psychology, for the exploration of mystics’ teachings.  Unfortunately, such views are based on a serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of mysticism as being nothing more than vague, insubstantial, idiosyncratic, metaphysical musings–in contrast to scientists’ precise, concrete, verifiable observations, measurements, and pronouncements.  The extent to which this view of  mysticism prevails amongst contemporary psychologists and scientists clearly documents how`widespread and thorough ignorance of the subject is within their numbers.

For instance, nowhere in this stereotyped conceptualization of mysticism is there any hint of recognition of the esoteric tradition’s existence, or suspicion that mystical insights are not necessarily to be relegated to the realms of personal visions and intuitive perceptions.  And yet on that misinformed basis, psychologists have deemed mysticism to be not only irrelevant, but also antagonistic to the development of scientific psychology.  As Charles Tart, a prominent psychologist, observed: “One of the most deprecating remarks you could make about a scientist’s work is to say that it shows signs of being ‘mystical.’”1  For this reason alone, it is not surprising that a mystic, like Gurdjieff, has remained largely unknown within academic psychology.

As a result of my study of ‘the fourth way,’ I soon came to agree with Ouspensky’s view that modern thought is completely misinformed and misguided in its appreciation of mysticism and esotericism, consequently, seriously misunderstands and misrepresents the history of the scientific study of psychology.  Ouspensky argues that all psychological doctrines and theories can be divided into two basic categories.  The first consists of systems that “study man as they find him, or such as they suppose him to be.”2  All of modern “scientific” psychology falls into this category.  The second type is comprised of those systems that study man in terms of “what he may become, that is from the point of view of his possible evolution.”3

According to Ouspensky, there are numerous ancient systems and teachings which belong to this second category.

Therefore, he claims that psychology is not, as is commonly said, a new science–established in William Wundt’s laboratory in the latter half of the nineteenth century–but, rather, is perhaps the oldest science.  Throughout the ages, numerous psychological doctrines and disciplines have appeared under different guises and have been associated with various religions, philosophical schools, mystery cults, and symbolic teachings.  (The latter include alchemy, astrology, and magic in ancient times, and more recently, occultism, Masonry, and Theosophy).  While the common bond of these varied paths and pursuits is not readily apparent, Ouspensky insists that they are all essentially systematic psychological methods for the acquisition of self-knowledge and the realization of self-transformation.  Moreover, he states that, despite the variety of approaches and manifestations of these teachings and disciplines, each is premised on the same understanding of the nature of psychology as “the study of the principles, laws, and facts of man’s possible evolution.”4 In light of Ouspensky’s argument about the scientific study of psychology’s unrecognized history, there is nothing really very surprising about the lack of recognition, within the circles of learned modernity, of G.I. Gurdjieff and ‘the fourth way.’

Ouspensky’s characterization of esoteric psychologies as being concerned with human beings’ “possible evolution” points to perhaps the most important reason why Western psychologists have failed to appreciate the importance of ‘the fourth way.’  The wisdom of esoteric teaching consists of revealed knowledge.  By merely reading and/or listening to lectures, it is possible to acquire knowledge of a system such as Gurdjieff’s, but to apprehend its truth demands an understanding which can only be realized through practical application of the teaching’s methods and ideas, and the transformation of consciousness and being that those disciplines and observations effect.  This is an idea and a method which is alien to Western thought.

Nevertheless, without making the long and difficult effort to study oneself and the world in terms of the system, it is impossible to properly weigh the significance of Gurdjieff’s claims.  There is no other fair or meaningful means of investigating his teaching.  “Believe nothing!” he repeatedly admonished his pupils; warning them that the willingness of most people “to believe any old tale” was but another mechanical reaction–a sign of sleep.  There was no room for belief or disbelief in considering what he was saying, Gurdjieff explained, because the knowledge he was seeking to transmit was “higher knowledge,” and in order to realize the essence of higher knowledge, one must develop one’s being accordingly.  In one’s normal state of consciousness– at the mechanical level of being–one cannot apprehend the full truth contained within an expression or manifestation of higher knowledge.  One cannot even imagine the real meaning of the term “higher knowledge.”  Only by developing one’s being, such that the dormant faculties of higher consciousness and intelligence are awakened, can one grasp the substance and significance of higher knowledge.  The level of one’s knowledge, Gurdjieff asserted, is dependent upon the level of one’s being.

For all intents and purposes, no one in Psychology grants any credence to the idea that knowledge is dependent upon being.  How could they?  Virtually no one gives serious consideration to the possibility that higher knowledge exists or that consciousness and being may be developed.  Therefore, there is little chance and less inclination within the ranks of psychologists or any other scientific wiseacres to examine impartially the ideas of Gurdjieff or any other such “mystical mumbo-jumbo.”  They will not do so because they are incapable of  suspending their disbelief and impartially assessing that which they assume they understand already.  The extent to which Gurdjieff’s teaching so thoroughly and radically upends or violates the most fundamental and unquestioned assumptions and principles upon which contemporary psychology is premised practically guarantees that the discipline will be untouched by his thought and methods.  And then there are some other kinds of reasons ....

Ironically, Gurdjieff, regarded the pursuit of knowledge, without a concomitant development of being, as the greatest failing of modern education and culture.  The imbalance in the development of knowledge and being, he asserted, is one of the most powerful and pervasive sources of mechanicalness and slavery.  Furthermore, as long as one’s being remains undeveloped–that is, leaving one in waking sleep, without unity, the capacity to do, or being able to remember oneself–then all of one’s knowledge remains superficial, and its acquisition simply fosters and reinforces one’s manifold psychological illusions.

Shortly after they had first met, Ouspensky asked G. about the value of reading “occult” or “mystical” literature.  Mr. Gurdjieff replied that a great deal could be gained from reading, especially if one understood what one read.  G. explained that if Ouspensky really understood all that he had read, or even had written in Tertium Organum–a book the latter had recently published to great acclaim–then he, Gurdjieff, would bow down and beg Ouspensky to be his teacher.  The problem, G. said, is that no one understands anything: our knowledge exists in our heads, but it does not touch the entirety of our being and, thus, is never our own.

Knowledge and understanding

Knowledge and understanding are two different things, according to G.  Most people would acknowledge that, in practical matters, there is a significant difference between “knowing” and “knowing how” to do something.  For G., there is a parallel in the difference between knowing, in which one apprehends something intellectually, and understanding, in which one not only knows something in one’s head, but feels and senses all that is connected with it.  I may read that I am a machine which functions in sleep, and may be able to provide an accurate exposition of the ideas associated with that claim, but until I also feel it emotionally, sense it physically, and experience it practically, I can not understand what “being mechanical” means.  Furthermore, understanding involves making connections between one thing and something more inclusive.  Thus, my understanding of “being mechanical” will grow the more frequently and deeply I feel and sense such instances, and the more I am able to integrate those particulars into a more coherent and comprehensive framework of understanding.

Typically, when people are confronted with something that they do not understand, they attempt to “name it,” G. says, and once they have named it, they assume that they understand it.  Thus, people who can name a great number of things are regarded by themselves and others as understanding a great deal.  Such knowledge is not only useless but dangerous, in G.’s view.  Knowledge, which does not develop in tandem with being, can produce nothing of value–only more mechanicalness, more slavery, more illusions, more lies, more fine words.  In contrast, the development of being in concert with knowledge leads to understanding and the beginning of everything that properly belongs to a human being: consciousness, unity, will, the capacity to do, and freedom.

Unfortunately, there is no recognition in modern Western psychology or culture that “being” is something that can be developed and that man, as he is normally, lives at a very low level of being.  We recognize variability in knowledge, G. says, but think that “being” is essentially just another term to denote existence.  Thus, we think nothing of it when people, celebrated for their great knowledge and achievements, behave, in other aspects of their lives, in ways which clearly express a very low level of being.  The bum and the Nobel laureate may share the same repugnant quality or common failing, and we are not all that surprised–just more willing to rationalize its existence in an “accomplished” person.  In some cases–particularly with intellectuals and artists–we expect them to be weak or troubled in certain ways, as it seems to be a part of the make-up of such types.  Hence, as Gurdjieff slyly notes, it seems to be axiomatic “that a professor must always forget his umbrella everywhere.”

Personality and essence

In part, G. attributes the poverty of man’s being to the differential development of “Personality” and “Essence.”  This distinction between the parts of humans’ being knows no place in modern psychology.  Yet, it is another critical concept in the ‘fourth way’ account of the profound differences between what humans are, and what they can and should be.

In broad terms, a person’s Essence consists of that which is his own; Personality is what is not his own.  Essence is that with which one is born: one’s heredity, nature, physical features, aptitudes, disposition, proclivities, and the like.  Personality is all that which comes from outside one: that which one acquires or is imposed on one through the chance and circumstances of one’s upbringing, surroundings, culture, education, and life experiences.

A small child lives in its Essence. All her desires, tastes, likes and dislikes are her own.  They directly express her being.  However, as the child matures, Personality begins to develop and is basically established by the age of five or six–through the influence of others, by imitation, and by resistance to others (including the attempt to conceal and preserve that which is one’s own).

Ideally, Personality and Essence would develop together in a harmonious balance, but this very rarely happens.  Due to the myriad sources of imitation and suggestion–family, school, friends, grown-ups–the child’s Personality grows rapidly and she is filled with ideas, feelings, and sensations that are not her own.  In this way, Personality grows over Essence like a crust or shell.  Essence becomes less and less frequently manifest, and is more and more feeble when it does so. Therefore, Essence is deprived of contact with the world and cannot grow.  Personality grows at its expense–assuming a malignant quality–and becomes dominant in one’s interactions and commerce with the world.  The artifice of Personality is then unconsciously and unconscionably active, while the plenum of Essence is reduced to the stasis and paralysis of passive isolation.

Gurdjieff is not stating that Personality is bad and Essence is good.  Each is necessary and each must grow if one’s being is to develop properly.  Certainly, there are many things that must be learned and acquired through Personality’s interactions in the world.  As Mr. G. says, it may even be underdeveloped in those uneducated, simple people who live close to Nature and in whom Essence is relatively strong.  But more typically, Personality’s dominance arrests the growth of Essence at a very early age.  As a result, Gurdjieff maintains, it is not unusual to find that a sophisticated, cultured person–even the President of the United States–has the Essence of a child.

Of course, the term “Personality” refers, not to one thing, but rather to all the personas one assumes or the masks that one wears in various rounds of life.  These personas or masks, acquired involuntarily by the chances of one’s conditioning and contact with sleeping people, appear and disappear according to equally involuntary and accidental dictates.  Thus, Personality is asleep.  The problem, according to Gurdjieff, is that Personality wants to be hypnotized and remain asleep.  Essence, on the other hand, is asleep, but it can be awakened.  Doing so, however, demands that Personality be changed consciously, such that it becomes more passive. Without such conscious direction, Personality remains superficial and is subject to constant unconscious changes.  One set of experiences drives out another, which are, in turn, driven out by another.  One aspect of Personality says ‘I want’ or ‘I like’ or ‘I do not like’ and then gives way to another set of different appetites and desires.  Consequently, people go through life existing as multiple, frequently antagonistic personages.  There is never anyone home.  In such circumstances–the life of the sleepwalker in the sleeping world–there is no control or real will.  Everything happens and will continue to happen unless Essence is awakened.  Only when Essence begins to experience and grow can its proper balance with Personality be restored, and the possibility of developing being and real will be realized.

A.R. Orage, one of Gurdjieff’s most prominent pupils, underlines the importance of developing one’s Essence by distinguishing it from Personality in these stark terms:     ‘Essence is truth about oneself in contrast to social and expected opinions of oneself.  Essence is truth irrespective of time, place, and the feelings of anyone.  It is what one would dare to avow if no consequences were to follow on a statement of the truth.  It is truth before God.  Personality is truth before men–before the world, conditioned by “What will people think?”

Ouspensky tells a story which is most instructive in considering some of these claims about being, Personality and Essence, and knowledge and understanding.  He describes how it was a practice of G.’s pupils in Moscow “to keep silence”–that is, to avoid unnecessary talking–when they gathered at G.’s apartment. Unnecessary talking is one of Personality’s most automatic and common activities and, hence, an important habit to oppose by trying to make it more passive.  Ouspensky relates what happened when he wanted to introduce some of his Moscow friends to G.  Only one–VA.A.–produced the impression of “being sufficiently alive” to be considered.  When his friend expressed an eagerness to meet Gurdjieff, he was invited to have lunch with him.  G. seated Ouspensky’s friend next to him and was the perfect host.  However, as Ouspensky belatedly realized, G. was testing his friend:?

...  The fact was that everyone kept silence.  A. held out for five minutes.  Then he began to talk.  He spoke of the war, of all our allies and enemies together and separately; he communicated the opinions of all the public men of Moscow and St. Petersburg upon all possible subjects; then he talked about the dessication of vegetables for the army ... particularly the dessication of onions, then about artificial manures, agricultural chemistry, and chemistry in general; about “melioration”; about spiritism, “the materialization of hands,” and about what else I do not remember now.

Keep silence

Ouspensky goes on to describe how his friend was so carried away with his own talk and his need to express his attitudes, opinions, and beliefs that he was essentially oblivious to everything and everyone around him.  He was completely unaware that no one else had said a word.  As such, his friend had been revealed to be a fool.  Gurdjieff had used him to prove a point to his pupils.  After A. had thanked Mr. G. for a “very interesting conversation” and had departed, Gurdjieff laughed slyly and said:?

“There, you see ....  He is called a clever man.  But he would not have noticed it even if I had taken his trousers off him.  Only let him talk.  He wants nothing else.  And everybody is like that.  This one was much better than many others.  He told no lies.  And he really knew what he talked about, in his own way of course.  But think, what use is he?  He is no longer young.  And perhaps this was the one time in his life when there was an opportunity of hearing the truth.  And he talked himself all the time.

It is very difficult to read this account without laughing at A.’s ridiculous behaviour–I can never get past the dessication of vegetables, particularly the dessication of onions–but the laughter is that of recognition.  We are all much more like Ouspensky’s friend than we care to admit or realize.  In our lives, Personality runs amok with unfailing dependability, such that–like A.–we are oblivious to its automatic manifestations.  If A.’s behaviour seems far-fetched, one need only observe what happens when one maintains silence or speaks only when necessary in a social context.  So much of what passes for conversation, the exchange of ideas, and repartee– even of the most clever and entertaining variety–is the automatic yammering of sleepwalkers.  It happens mechanically.  And one can prove that to oneself beyond doubt simply by struggling to go against this activity.  It would seem that nothing could be so simple, but that conceit merely reflects the extent to which we are hypnotized and spellbound by our psychological illusions.

As Gurdjieff says, A. is what is called a clever man.  He is a man in whom Personality is very well developed–he knows a lot about a lot of things–but what good is it?  Placed in a situation in which a seemingly innocuous contrivance–people not talking–creates an unbearable friction in him, his Personality cannot remain still.  And so he talks until he is so engrossed in talking and being clever ... that he is not only unaware of what is happening but is literally deluded.  Can such a man be conscious?  Does he understand things, or is he more like a clever parrot who is able to name things?  Is he a free man choosing to act from the essence of his being?  Or is he an automaton–a clever machine–being controlled and moved by forces he neither suspects nor would recognize if he was told of them?

The great irony of the entire episode lies in the fact that A. had impressed Ouspensky as the person most likely to be interested in G.’s ideas, expressed enthusiasm about meeting him, and thanked G. profusely for a “very interesting conversation.”  But even if A. had heard some of Mr. Gurdjieff’s ideas, his behaviour would probably have not been much different.  I never cease to be amazed by people’s reactions when they are exposed to Gurdjieff’s teachings and other esoteric ideas.  How quick they are to dismiss the entirety of the ‘fourth way,’ for instance, on the basis of the most superficial exposure to its tenets, to distort and reduce everything to the familiar and mundane, and to assume that they know and understand immediately things that they have just heard for the first time and could not possibly have given the careful consideration necessary to weigh them properly.  What is equally shocking is to discover that, no matter how well I know someone–or believe I do–there is just no predicting who will see something in this work and who will not.

When I first entered The Work, the one aspect of the teaching which had bothered me was its apparent elitism.  It was clear that ‘the fourth way’ was not open to everyone–that, in fact, only a select few could or would pursue its path.  However, I soon came to understand that there was nothing unfair or unjust about the teaching’s supposed exclusivity.  Instead, I understood what Mr. Gurdjieff meant when he stated that esoteric knowledge is not, as is commonly supposed, “hidden.”  On the contrary, it is quite open and available to anyone interested in it–but, quite simply, most people have no such interest in acquiring this extraordinary knowledge.  However, this is not to say that it is free.  In fact, it is the nature of the payment involved in attaining esoteric wisdom that is truly hidden.  For the seekers of truth must pay for its treasures, at every step, through conscious service, suffering, and sacrifice.  And many of those who declare themselves to be committed to pursuing that path of self-perfection discover that they are either unwilling or unable to submit and surrender themselves wholly in paying for that which they acknowledge is priceless.


Gurdjieff’s lack of impact on modern psychology and that of the esoteric tradition is attributable, in part, to the peculiar dynamics that divide those who hear something new and profoundly significant in such teachings from those who hear nothing extraordinary or noteworthy.  I see now that Ouspensky was correct when he stated that, to be receptive to ‘the fourth way,’ one must have experienced some substantial measure of dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the established ideas and explanations of life.  That observation certainly applied to Chris and me.  Through our years of discussing psychology and philosophy, we had developed similar views about the essential shape and nature of what Psychology should and must be.  We shared an unspoken conviction that, as interesting as the theories and ideas of some psychologists were, they had only touched some parts of the elephant.  Of course, we did not know the true nature of the beast–but we suspected it to be much larger, more mysterious, and quite unlike the picture of it that psychologists had drawn.

To then come across the psychology that Gurdjieff taught was astonishing.  Here was someone saying that the beast was nothing like that described by the blind men, and insisting that such efforts were condemned to failure until people understood that they could and would know an elephant only when they could see it.  According to Mr. G., people are blind–yes–but they possess the capacity to see.  Like anything else it is a matter of education.  This is not a matter of conjecture, it is a fact.  Certain individuals have transformed their blindness and developed the capacity to see; they have come to their senses and awakened.  The differences between what modern psychologists and Gurdjieff say human beings are, and can become, are that dramatic.

When it comes to knowledge, psychologists–in fact, all scientists–are true democrats.  Some people have better ideas than others, express themselves more effectively, are better experimenters and observers, and are regarded, therefore, as possessing superior intellects.  However, even the best and the brightest are not regarded as “higher beings.”  They are not.  In contrast, Gurdjieff states that not only can people be differentiated in terms of the level of their being, but failing to recognize this and to understand that higher being can be cultivated comprises the blindness of modern science and education.  A psychology, which seeks to understand man as he is–without understanding what he can become–is upside down and empty.  Psychologists develop psychology in sleep; scientists practise science in sleep.  All this happens ... and as long as it does, science and psychology–and our conceptualizations of what they entail–will remain tied to the limited understanding and senses of sleepwalkers and blind men.  Those rare individuals who have developed consciousness and being–that is, those who are “awakened” or “enlightened”–proffer a radically different psychology and science.  They describe realms of higher knowledge and being–domains of intelligence qualitatively superior to all knowledge and understanding established and limited by the level of normal consciousness and being–and claim to apprehend their luminous truths.  Perhaps someone should look into this.

I believe that Gurdjieff was a man of higher being and consciousness.  I say this, while fully acknowledging that, having read numerous books and articles about him and studied his system for many years, I know that I do not know who he was or what he was.  Churchill’s famous description of Russia–“an enigma, wrapped in a riddle, surrounded by a mystery”–suits Gurdjieff very well.  He seems to have very clearly gone to great lengths to hide himself, to cast doubt upon himself, and to make sure that those who studied under him were able to separate him from his teaching.  He should be more famous than he is; his ideas should be much more widely appreciated than they are.  And yet, when considered in terms of the greater context of this remarkable man’s extraordinary life and work, his legacy seems strangely fitting and just.

An explanation of who Gurdjieff was–in terms of biographical information–is interesting, in that he led a fascinating life, even as it is understood at the most superficial level.  Ultimately, however, such information is of limited and dubious value.  He was outwardly something of a controversial, and sometimes outrageous character.  He has been called a master, a fake, an avatar, charlatan, teacher, con man, magician, ignoramus, “rascal sage,” and, in his own words, “a teacher of dancing.”  Time magazine said that he “seems to have been a remarkable blend of P.T. Barnum, Rasputin, Freud, Groucho Marx and everybody’s grandfather.”8  That’s pretty good–as far as it goes.  And that is about as far as many people do go. I have come across numerous derogatory references to Gurdjieff that either dismiss him as something of a madcap eccentric or, more commonly, attack him vehemently as being a great fraud.  Like reactions to his teaching, those statements tell me more about the commentator than they do about Gurdjieff.  But even those attempts to come to grips with Gurdjieff, that are sympathetic, seem to be guaranteed to fail.  In a peculiar way, it seems that to attempt to portray Gurdjieff is to enter a house of mirrors, in which everyone turns this way and that–only to catch glimpses of their own distorted reflections.

What we know about Gurdjieff’s first forty years, before his appearance in Moscow in 1912, comes primarily from his own accounts.  These are pointedly unreliable and, in some cases, transparently false.  Nevertheless, we do know that he was born in Alexandropol in the Caucasus region of what was Russia and is now part of Armenia.  The year is uncertain–befitting a man of such great mystery.  His passport said 1877, but Gurdjieff sometimes claimed to have been born several years before that, and it is more likely that he was born in 1872.  Whatever the date, his family lost its fortune due to the upheaval caused by the Russo-Turkish war and was forced to move to nearby Kars when he was a boy.  Displaced by the war, the region’s unique diversity of cultural and religious groups became concentrated in towns such as Kars.  Armenians, Greeks, Turks, Tartars, Assyrians, Yezidis (“devil worshipers”)9,  Romanys, Esthonians, and gypsies all contributed to the area’s distinct multi-ethnic and multi-cultural character.  Thus, Gurdjieff grew up amidst an exotic variety of cultural and religious influences that were especially provocative for a precocious and curious lad.

As a boy, he witnessed a number of unusual phenomena and found the accepted “explanations” for them markedly inadequate.  For instance, he once saw a Yezidi boy trapped inside a “magic circle” drawn in the dirt–literally, unable to escape–until someone rubbed out the line.  No one could tell him what this meant or how it was possible.  In search of answers to such questions, he began to read voraciously and to study psychology, neurology, and hypnosis.  His studies and the influence of his father and his tutor, the dean of the Russian military cathedral, instilled in him what he described as an “irrepressible striving” to understand the meaning and purpose of life on Earth, in general, and human existence, specifically.

Seekers after truth

In pursuit of his quest, Gurdjieff traveled widely in Asia Minor and the Near East; paying special attention to sites of archaeological significance.  His searches eventually brought him together with other like-minded individuals who shared his belief in the existence of hidden sources of wisdom.  Together, they formed a group called “The Seekers After Truth”–fifteen to twenty men and one woman–each with his or her own special areas of interest.  In various combinations and sometimes alone, they travelled to the locations and ruins of ancient civilizations–Assyria, Crete, Egypt, Sumeria, the Holy Land–and visited numerous monasteries and spiritual communities from Africa to Central Asia.  As a result of their labours and hardships, they made contact with sources of higher knowledge, uncovering and penetrating great mysteries.

If this sounds like a fairy tale or a romantic epic, perhaps it is.  The account comes from Meetings With Remarkable Men, a book Gurdjieff wrote many years after the alleged events he describes.  Corroborating his story amounts to an exercise in futility–the passage of time and the very inaccessibility of many of the places, that he mentions, would seem to prohibit any such effort.  More importantly, it really misses the point.  While Meetings With Remarkable Men may be grounded in fact, its language is myth.  The book is, in my opinion, an allegory in which Gurdjieff shatters all our sentimental and comforting notions about what searching for truth means, and reveals the heroic dimensions in which life must be lived if one is to venture meaningfully into the unimaginable realm that is the domain of eternal mystery.  Higher knowledge depends on being, but the development of being involves heroic effort, suffering, and sacrifice.

Northrop Frye, the brilliant literary scholar, wrote that the life of Jesus–as it appears in the Gospels–is told in terms of myth.  Myth is not historical, Frye says, and Jesus is not presented in the Gospels as a historical figure.  Rather, he is “a figure who drops into history from another dimension of reality, and thereby shows what the limitations of the historical perspective are.”10 (emphasis added)  In trying to grapple with the loaded question of who Gurdjieff was, I realized that Frye’s comments about Jesus hit the mark.  That is not to say that I mean to equate Gurdjieff with Jesus.  What I am suggesting is that the idea of a figure ‘dropping into history from another dimension of reality’ conveys a sense of how G.’s unique being appears to defy the historical perspective.  Moreover, to say this strikes me as being no more preposterous or fantastic than trying to fit him into the mould of a historical figure, and then foisting him on the unsuspecting as the real McCoy.  Gurdjieff, to me, was and is an alien intelligence, whose being manifested itself in such ways as to both reveal and transcend the limits of any traditional historical or psychological perspective.

Ouspensky said that G. used to laugh whenever someone expected him to do miraculous things.  Nonetheless, Mr. G. did claim that, during the years of his search and training, he had developed certain psychic powers.  However, the acquisition of these powers precipitated a crisis of conscience which led him to take a vow never to use those special capacities for selfish ends.  The fact remains that several of his pupils did witness or experience phenomena that appear to have substantiated G.’s claims regarding his special powers.  They are not easily dismissed or explained away.  For instance, Ouspensky–a genuine skeptic and a man of uncompromising discrimination–describes how G. communicated with him telepathically!  Others tell of Mr. G. transmitting energy to them or healing them psychically.

More fairy tales perhaps.  I do not think so, but I believe that these are the kind of stories people want and expect to hear when speaking of someone as a “higher being.”  There are many such fantastic stories about esoteric teachers and masters–more than enough to give any truly open-minded seeker of truth cause to seriously wonder about ‘all and everything.’  On the other hand, placing too much emphasis on the miraculous is to lose oneself in appearances, to substitute titillation for truth.  As Jan Cox, a contemporary teacher and commentator on Gurdjieff, says that people want to be told how “Lamas fly through the air and turn yak dung into chocolate mousse.”11  What would be more useful would be to aim for something closer to home: to look to acquire all those attributes that people already believe they possess, such as a real, unchangeable “I,” consciousness, and the capacity to do.  In those terms, I believe that  Gurdjieff was a man who had attained higher being and realized those capacities.  Daly King, who knew G. but would never commit himself to being one of his pupils, provides a sense of the latter’s unique being as the basis of his authority:?

Gurdjieff manifested himself in ways never encountered by the writer, in ways so different from those of others that they constituted a plain and perceptible difference in level of existence upon his part ....  He is the only person ever met by the writer who gave the indubitable impression that all his responses, mental, emotional and practical, were mutually in balance and thus the further impression that everyone else was out of step, but not this man himself.

Similarly, Kenneth Walker, who did study with Gurdjieff, describes his protean nature and distinct presence:

He could create any impression he liked and would often supply whatever his visitors expected of him.  ...  It was not part of his work to disarm hostility and to make converts, but to give help to those who had already discovered that they were in need of help."

Everything Gurdjieff did seemed to originate from within.  ...  He never fumbled in his thoughts or his movements.  The latter were always purposeful and made with the strictest economy of effort ... and his immense capacity for work was due to this ability of his never to waste energy.


The more I saw of Gurdjieff the more convinced I became of his uniqueness.  He had qualities which I had never seen in anybody else; profound knowledge, immense vitality and complete immunity from fear.

How do we square these testaments to the greatness of Gurdjieff’s being, which so many others who knew him endorse, with his status within supposedly learned circles as nothing more than an eccentric cult figure, and his virtual anonymity among the general public?  In Walker’s observations, there are some important clues to be considered when interpreting this apparent contradiction.  The first is that Mr. G. never proselytized nor made the slightest effort to convince anyone about the validity of what ‘the fourth way’ teaches.  He taught only those who earnestly came to him as pupils, and that which he gave them was in proportion to the sincerity and extent of their efforts.

The second clue involves G.’s capacity to act–“to create any impression he liked.”  Like so many things about him, this “acting” needs to be understood, not in the usual way, but in terms of his being.  Ouspensky tells of how he and many of Gurdjieff’s Russian pupils understood early on that he was always “acting”:

Our feeling of this “acting” in G. was exceptionally strong.  Among ourselves we often said we never saw him and never would.  In any other man so much “acting” would have produced an impression of falsity.  In him “acting” produced an impression of strength, although ... not always; sometimes there was too much of it.

Many others shared Ouspensky’s impressions regarding Mr. G.’s acting.  And Gurdjieff himself stated that to be a “real actor” was a very great achievement because only a “real man” was capable of doing so.  In this vein, he wrote that:?

The sign of a perfected man and his particularity in ordinary life must be that in regard to everything happening outside him, he is able to, and can in every action, perform to perfection externally the part corresponding to the given situation, but at the same time never blend or agree with it.

Gurdjieff claimed that, as a result of “enormous efforts and continuous rejection of nearly everything deserved in ordinary life,” he had reached a state in which “nothing from outside could really touch me internally ....”

Finally, as Walker indicates, Gurdjieff did nothing to challenge or mitigate others’ negative attitudes, opinions, and beliefs about him.  In fact, he often engineered or encouraged such hostility and denunciations!  Hardly what one would expect of a master or perfected man.  However, within Sufism–the esoteric tradition of the dervishes which strongly influenced Gurdjieff–there exists a particular way of teaching called malamat, or the “path of blame.”  Its adherents instruct and illuminate by consciously behaving in ways that shock and contradict their pupils’ expectations and assumptions about everything–including their teacher.  Clearly, this was an important element in the way Gurdjieff taught.  ‘The fourth way’ is not a system of faith or belief.  It is a method of studying oneself and the world.  Given Mr. G.’s charismatic presence, it would have been easy and extremely tempting for his pupils to lose themselves in following him blindly.  Yet, doing so would involve and encourage the very state of suggestibility and lack of discrimination from which G. was trying to help people escape.  Thus, he was as unsparing in his remonstrances as he was ingenious in orchestrating events to remind his pupils to separate the teaching from the teacher.  Cynics and skeptics may satisfy themselves with seizing on some apparent impropriety or transgression in Gurdjieff’s behaviour as the basis on which he and his teaching may be safely dismissed.  Today, that type of nay-saying is something of a parlour game for the “discriminating intellectual”–a trend reinforced by many self-styled, contemporary gurus’ unhappy proclivity to embrace careers that fall karmically under the rubric of that most unholy trinity: Incarnation; Incorporation; Incarceration.  Nonetheless, these various considerations provide some insight into how and why all questions, involving Gurdjieff as a historical figure, lead ultimately to questioning the question.

What we do know of Gurdjieff–after he brought his teaching to the West in pre-revolutionary Russia, until his death in Paris in 1949–comes from all the usual sources that inform biographies of public figures.  Among the many extraordinary men and women who studied and worked with G., there were many gifted writers.  They have left us numerous remembrances, reports, and commentaries about the man and his work.  Normally, one would expect that a life scrutinized and documented so carefully and skillfully would promise penetrating insight, revealing the essence behind the public persona.  But then there is a catch ....

Mr. G.’s ‘acting’ never allowed anyone to see him completely.  All his behaviour and external manifestations–parts deprived of their relation to the greater whole–were the illusions that he projected.  The more people looked, without understanding this, the greater the deception.  This was a paradox that Gurdjieff not only enjoyed, but nurtured and lavishly embellished; the more you saw of him, the less he was revealed.  Like any good magician, he occupied and diverted onlookers’ attention with misdirection, patter, and their willingness and desire to see what they expected or were accustomed to seeing.  But behind this play of appearances, there was some serious business going on.  If the “real Gurdjieff” was and is unknowable, then he is not knowable as a historical figure–he can be neither reduced to nor encompassed by such terms–but rather is one who reveals “what the limitations of the historical perspective are.”

Gurdjieff said that ‘the fourth way’ was an ancient teaching that had assumed various forms throughout history.  And though there was never anything more than some tantalizing hints about an esoteric school in Turkestan or Afghanistan, Mr. G. also stated that he had a teacher with whom he was always in contact.  Thus, while Gurdjieff was an extraordinary man, he was neither unique in his time nor throughout time.  Everything I have said here, in trying to suggest that people are capable of developing higher being and knowledge, stands on its own–with or without Gurdjieff.  That my study of Gurdjieff and his teaching led me to that conclusion attests to his greatness.  Discovering Gurdjieff moved me, in turn, to explore the esoteric tradition–the secret teachings of all ages–and to begin to realize the profound significance and implications of that material for all aspects of modern psychology, science, education, and, most importantly, my own life.

Blind men and the elephant

To return to the blind men and the elephant ....  If we take the elephant to represent wo/man, we have two radically different approaches to knowledge and understanding.  Modern psychology is an intellectual undertaking grounded in the process of inductive reasoning–that is, from the particular to the general.  Discovering the elephant’s nature is pursued through an onslaught of essentially isolated and uncoordinated efforts; attempting to know the beast by blindly groping and touching its various parts.  Faith has it that, with a gradual accumulation and compilation of the described pieces, an accurate understanding of the whole will emerge.  In contrast, Gurdjieff– and other bearers of the esoteric legacy–claim that there are individuals who have made special efforts to perfect themselves, not simply by developing their intellects, but by awakening the intelligence of their entire beings.  By doing so, they have consciously developed the faculty of sight.  Hence, they have seen the elephant and understand that its individual features exist, not in isolation, but as parts of a whole.  To know and understand the elephant, the intellect alone is insufficient.  Seeing is a faculty of the whole human being, and only the education of the whole human’s being can deliver him from his blindness.  Such education aims to bring the intellect, the emotions, and the body into a harmonious balance, such that the dormant faculties of consciousness, being, and will are awakened.  To this end, learning consists of a great deal of “unlearning” and “undoing” of that which one has acquired in the realms of the sightless.  Only those, who are guided by the sighted, are capable of preparing the ground for the transformation of their being.  Modern science is premised and charted on the changing of ideas; esotericism provides methods of self-realization and spiritual union through the transformation of consciousness and being.

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