Who was Gurdjieff?

Anyone who has studied WD Gann knows he was greatly influenced by the teachings of a man named Gurdjieff. This article explores who this enigmatic character was and posits why Gann was so interesting in what he and his devotee PD Ouspensky had to say.

Mr. Gurdjieff, was a strange mystic who lived in the later half of the 19th and early part of the 20th centuries. P.D. Ouspensky, his student and disciple described his teachings as “Fragments of an Unknown”. Gurdjieff was very influential among writers, artists and thinkers of the time. One such person, besides WD Gann was architect Frank Lloyd Wright. Gurdjieff is with out a doubt one of the most fascinating figures of the 20th century. Peter Brook made a film about him in 1997 called “Meetings With Remarkable Men,”.

Gudjieff claimed to be teaching “esoteric” knowledge, which is to say the hidden, secret inner knowledge which lies at the core of all religions. Where exactly he got this teaching is not known. Some say he learn it at secret school somewhere in the Gobi region north of Afghanistan. Apparently the school assigned him the task of taking the teachings, which combined ancient Eastern mysticism with a Western science, to the West. The teaching was called the “Fourth Way,” and was for the purpose of periodically “injectecting” humanity with ancient knowledge in a totally new way.

Although some say the Gurdjieff movement died along with the man, new students discover his teachings each day. When they do many cannot helf but feel excited about the material and reinvigorated in their own searches for the truth and meaning. Though he lived only recently and was obviously influenced by the first and second world wars, reading about Gurdjieff's life is like reading some exotic and ancient mytholog. What follows are some reviews of articles from the Fall 2003 issue of the "Gurdjieff International Review" at the website gurdjieff.org. They give insight into the teachings of a man who remains an enigma.

1. The View From Above by Jeanne de Salzmann.

de Salzmann was a musician introduced to Gurdjieff by the composer Thomas de Hartmann. De Hartmann worked extensively with Gurdjieff to transcribe the sacred music Gurdjieff had learned. Her article echos the teachings of two modern Indian sages: Ramana Maharshi and Nisargadatta Maharaj.

;I have the power to lift myself above myself and see myself freel… to be seen. I have the power that my thought not be enslaved. For this, it must let go of all the associations that hold it captive, passive. It must cut the threads that bind it to all these images, to all these forms; it must free itself from the constant pull of emotion. It must feel the power it has to resist this pull, to see it while lifting itself steadily above it. In this movement thought becomes active; it becomes active in the act of purifying itself; and in this way it acquires an aim, a single aim: to think “I,” to realize “who I am,” to enter into this mystery.”-de Salzmann

Gurdjieff taught that we must become aware of the false “I” before we can find one's true “I.” This was called breaking the bondage of the false personality. De Salzmann puts it this way:

“It is a struggle to leave the illusion of “I” in which I live, in order to come closer to a more real seeing. At the heart of this struggle an order is created in the chaos, a hierarchy: two levels are revealed, two worlds. As long as there is only one level, there can be no seeing. Recognition of another level that is the awakening of Thought.”-de Salzmann

2. A Spiritual Adventure by Kathryn Hulme

There are many books by many people who met and worked with Gurdjieff, and each one gives a totally different picture of who he was. One can only conclude that Gurdjieff was a different person to everybody (“The Unknowable Mr. Gurdjieff”) Was this because he constantly adapted his teaching to the individual?

“I believe that anyone who has struggled to shut off the mechanically racing mind through a sleepless night, or who has tried to pray for even half a minute without having associations drag one’s attention away, has had a taste, however small, of the kind of self-discipline into which he initiated us. It was a basic “spiritual exercise aimed to help us build inner energy.”Kathryn Hulme
“Gurdjieff had given us a pledge to say each time before beginning the new exercise that we would not use this for the self, but for all humanity. This “good wishing-for-all vow, so deeply moving in intent, had a tremendous effect upon me. For the first time in my life, I felt that I was truly doing something for humanity as I strove to make my own molecule of it more perfect. The meaning of this Work, which at first had seemed quite egotistical and self-centered, suddenly blossomed out like a tree of life encompassing in its myriad branchings the entire human family. The implications of it were staggering. By my single efforts toward Being, I could help sleeping humanity one hairsbreadth nearer to God. I believed this.”-Kathryn Hulme

3. Facing Mr. Gurdjieff by Michel Conge.

This is a brief excerpt from a longer work.

“Gurdjieff made it clear that there existed a source teaching at the root of what he transmitted: a knowledge having the status of an objective science. He is thus like a bridge thrown down between ourselves and the world of objective reality, and this compels us to realize something essential: that, being the bridge, he thereby escaped being taken by us as the goal. It would be wrong of us, therefore, to betray him by making a god out of him. We must not make his teaching into a new religion. To me he appears all the greater for having known how to remain the one who prepares the way, indifferent to praise and blame alike.”-Michel Conge

4. As Above, So Below a Conversation with G. I. Gurdjieff

This article get to the meat of what drew the attention of WD Gann. PD Ouspensky's “In Search of the Miraculous” was the first to expose Gurdjieff's teachings to a wider audiance. The following quote from a student sounds earily familiar to the description Ouspensky wrote about his first meetings with Gurdjieff.

“Having examined the room, I turned my eyes to Mr. Gurdjieff. He looked at me, and I had the distinct impression that he took me in the palm of his hand and weighed me. I smiled involuntarily, and he looked away from me calmly and without haste. Glancing at A., he said something to him. He did not look at me again in this way and the impression was not repeated.”-Unknown Student

As in many of Ouspensky's accounts, this student's description of the conversation seems to suggest that some kind of unusual telepathy was going on in the background of the spoken words.

“Another peculiarity was that I had to ask very rarely. As soon as a question arose and before it could be formulated, the development of the thought had already given the answer. It was as though Mr. Gurdjieff had known in advance and anticipated the questions which might arise.”-Unknown Student
“…You are acquainted with occult literature, began Mr. Gurdjieff, and so I will refer to the formula you know from the Emerald Tablets: ‘As above, so below.’ It is easy to start to build the foundation of our discussion from this. At the same time I must say that there is no need to use occultism as the base from which to approach the understanding of truth. Truth speaks for itself in whatever form it is manifested. You will understand this fully only in the course of time, but I wish to give you today at least a grain of understanding. So, I repeat, I begin with the occult formula because I am speaking to you. I know you have tried to decipher this formula. I know that you ‘understand’ it. But the understanding you have now is only a dim and distant reflection of the divine brilliance.”
“I know you understand the unity of the laws governing the universe, but this understanding is speculative or rather, theoretical. It is not enough to understand with the mind, it is necessary to feel with your being the absolute truth and immutability of this fact; only then will you be able, consciously and with conviction, to say I know.”
“He then proceeded to describe vividly the sphere in which the life of all mankind moves, with a thought which illustrated the Hermetic formula he had quoted (as above so below). By analogies he passed from the little ordinary happenings in the life of an individual to the great cycles in the life of the whole of mankind. By means of such parallels he underscored the cyclic action of the law of analogy within the diminutive sphere of terrestrial life.

Then, in the same way, he passed from mankind to what I would call the life of the earth, representing it as an enormous organism like that of man, and in terms of physics, mechanics, biology and so on. I watched the illumination of his thought come increasingly into focus on one point. The inevitable conclusion of all that he said was the great law of tri-unity: the law of the three principles of action, resistance and equipoise: the active, passive and neutral principles.

Now resting upon the solid foundation of the earth, and armed with this law, he applied it, with a bold flight of thought, to the whole solar system. Now his thought no longer moved toward this law of tri-unity, but already out from it, emphasizing it more and more, and manifesting it in the step nearest to man, that of Earth and Sun. Then, with a brief phrase, he passed beyond the limits of the solar system. Astronomical data first flashed forth, then appeared to dwindle and disappear before the infinity of space.

There remained only one great thought, issuing from the same great law. His words sounded slow and solemn, and at the very same moment seemed to diminish and lose their significance. Behind them could be sensed the pulse of a tremendous thought.”
“We have come to the brink of the abyss which can never be bridged by ordinary human reason. Do you feel how superfluous and useless words have become? Do you feel how powerless reason by itself is here? We have approached the principle behind all principles. Having said this, he be came silent, his gaze thoughtful.”
“Spellbound by the beauty and grandeur of this thought, I had gradually ceased to listen to the words. I could say that I felt them, that I grasped his thought not with my reason but by intuition. Man far below was reduced to nothingness, and disappeared leaving no trace. I was filled with a sense of closeness to the Great Inscrutable, and with the deep consciousness of my personal nothingness.
“As though divining my thoughts, Mr. Gurdjieff asked: We started with man, and where is he? But great, all-embracing is the law of unity. Everything in the Universe is one, the difference is only of scale; in the infinitely small we shall find the same laws as in the infinitely great. As above, so below.”

Gurdjieff went on to explain The Law of Octaves, second only to The Law of Three, and how these two primordial laws of creation apply throughout the universe on every scale, from the galaxies to the world of micro-particles. A law of unity, and a law of multiplicity. As above, so below. The student goes through a series of understandings, no doubt boosted by the strength of Gurdjieff's psychic presence. Again one gets the sense of a telepathic process going on beneath the surface from teacher to disciple.

The discussion moves on to an “objective chemistry,” or the microcosm. Again we see the idea of the blending of Western and Eastern knowledge, the experiment the secret school sent Gurdjieff out to perform. From the microcosm he moves back a bit to the scale of the human organism, showing that understanding of these two basic laws brings a knowledge of things at any scale. At this point we are deep into the Gurdjieff teaching regarding outer things.

At this point the student's concentration fails and Gurdjieff decides he has had all he can take for the moment, and postpones further conversation. Suddenly anxious the student seeks reassurance that the teaching will continue. Gurdjieff reassures him with the following advice.

“Now I want to tell you this. As everything in the Universe is one, so, consequently, everything has equal rights, therefore from this point of view knowledge can be acquired by a suitable and complete study, no matter what the starting point is. Only one must know how to ‘learn.’ What is nearest to us is man; and you are the nearest of all men to yourself. Begin with the study of yourself; remember the saying ‘Know thyself.’ It is possible that now it will acquire a more intelligible meaning for you.

To begin with, A. will help you in the measure of his own force and yours. I advise you to remember well the scheme of the human organism which I gave you. We shall sometimes return to it in the future, adding to its depth every time. Now A. and I will leave you alone for a short time, as we have a small matter to attend to. I recommend that you not puzzle your brains over what we have spoken about, but give them a short rest. Even if you happen to forget something, A. will remind you of it afterwards. Of course it would be better if you did not need to be reminded. Acustom yourself to forget nothing.

excerpted from “Glimpses of Truth,” Views from the Real World: Early Talks of Gurdjieff as Recollected by his Pupils, New York: Dutton, 1973, pp.