In Search of the Work of George Gurdjieff

About fifty years ago I became interested but briefly in the ideas of George Gurdjieff. “Interested” because he has an esoteric perspective on the spiritual life, and “briefly” for pretty much the same reason. He was so far out of the box that I did not really understand him and I was so far in the box that he was no use to me. How would I use his chart for the alignment of the universe in my next sermon? So he hit the shelf, and then the basket, and then the paper sale.

This year while reading The Unknown Planet by Jacob Needleman, a philosopher I respect, I discovered that Jacob was deeply involved in the work of the Gurdjieff movement. On the principle that I usually like people my friends like I decided once again to learn of the work of George Gurdjieff.

The first thing I learned is that there is a definite “work” that he and his followers worked, so I found a book, edited by my hero Jacob Needleman, titled: The Inner Journey – Views from the Gurdjieff Work. It missed the mark. Not that it was empty of ideas but it but hinted at the work itself. What did they do? This book for the most part was interesting ideas from people who happen to be doing the Gurdjieff work. Even the quotes from Gurdjieff did not have the mark of central ideas, at least to me.

Somewhere I had seen that if you really want to know everything about Gurdjieff one must read his autobiographical story, Meetings with Remarkable Men. So I bought it and I read it. His life makes quite a tale as he works his way through Russia, and Turkey, to Europe and England and to the United States first learning from others, then preaching the doctrine that he develops beyond these learnings, drawing thousands of disciples to his work first in one country and then in another and funding the whole from business deals he concocts on the way. (Somewhere in that reading I picked up a caveat that he exaggerates.) And he does meet some remarkable men.

Still I do not know what his works are. What is it that he and others do other than listen to the teachings? And what are the teachings?

I looked him up on the net and caught some hints. First I ran into some dances he has composed. His followers perform exercises that can just as well be called dance and sometimes were. What I see is performance dancing created by Gurdjieff, a group dancing in front of others. One dance is a fairly large group performing mechanical motions, synchronized but varied from subgroup to subgroup. The other is simply five dervishes whirling as a five person orchestra plays music. Both performances I found quite hypnotic. I am aware of other traditions that use “dance” or exercise as an awakening device and I can see how these dances can capture the performer even more deeply than it captured me, the observer.

I caught on a different site two short piano pieces composed by Gurdjieff. Very simple. Major chords progressing in stately fashion with only occasional mild dissonance and little variation. Not at all interesting, but hypnotic. This matches with his disciples experience of his presence. This also matches with one of his first money making professions, a hypnotist. Indeed, as I read Gurdjieff I find the reading hypnotic.

Then I bumped again into Jacob Needleman on the web being interviewed <commweal needleman>and received a sharper picture of the Gurdjieff doctrines as applied by the individual, the individual’s work so-to-speak. I lift up just two, first “Attention!”

The Gurdjieff disciple is to be in constant attention to the inner life. The attention is not directed by the ego from one item to another but allowed to float freely from item to item. The disciple is called to attention, but the attention decides itself what it attends to. In the discovering of the Gurdjieff work the first simple factual work I discover is the central process of Quakerism looking a little different clothed in the uniform of the secular and stripped of the garments of religion. As in Quakerism the work of the light (attention) is to simply know what is happening in the inner life and trust that the light (attention) itself will order things for the better and provide a doorway to the clear sight of everyday reality. And I might add this process is used not only in Quakerism but in Zen, in Vipassana, in the Advaita, to name some of my sources for the same process.

The second is to “Remember myself.”

I was taught something quite different, to forget myself. I am just trying to fit this new possibility into my worldview. I think it not in conflict with the older direction, but not sure about that. I realize that is the defining characteristic of a few people I know and admire but a characteristic I have never been able to name. Most people in conversation or life slip the anchor to their own depths and function at a level shallower, more adrift in the waves than they should be for their own well being. To me that learning was fresh, and fecund. And disturbing. Now what?

So on, to the next book. In Search of the Miraculous by P.D. Ouspensky. The subtitle is The Teachings of G.L.Gurdjieff. Ouspensky is a genius in his own right, a mathematician, who travels with, dialogues with Gurdjieff as an equal, but at the same time student. And it is in the midst of the ins and outs of their life journeys that the lessons that I have sought to learn finally are laid out. No hope for detail for you from me now, for the lessons are many and complex. Some I found helpful, such as the interesting possibility that one can grow to have more being and some I found absurd. For instance: life is lived on the major scale. Room for changes are between do and ti, fa and mi. Impetus at those points can change the direction of the world, or anything else for that matter. I doubt it. It is a concept beyond my comprehending. As are many of his concepts, and for that reason I set them aside as unlikely.

This is nearly as far as I can take you. I have one more book that I planned to read and that is Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson by Gurdjieff himself. I was warned that this was a difficult book and by page 141 I thought it impossible. What for the life of me was he trying to say? Since the book is 1,238 pages long and small print I leave to others brighter than I to critique it. Needleman, while admitting it is difficult, encourages you to continue reading it. However, I quit. Back to where I was fifty years ago. But none the worse for the journey. Quite a bit improved actually.

At the end of Meetings with Remarkable Men, Gurdjieff relates how he paid for all of his travel including supporting many students who clustered around him. He ran businesses, quite profitable ones. In one situation, I believe in Turkey, he set up a repair business. The locals were buying lots of American gadgets with little knowledge of how to make them work. His repairs were often simple but to the owner of the gadget, miraculous. For instance, an owner brought to his shop a sewing machine that after months of service had suddenly gone crazy. Now it was running in reverse. George assured him that in time he could figure this one out, it might take a week, come back then. As the sewing machine owner left the shop, lest George forget to do it later, he repaired the machine immediately. He moved the little lever hidden in the base from reverse to forward and charged of course quite a bit for the “miraculous repair.”

So perhaps, just perhaps, Gurdjieff’s followers are not brighter than I, just more credulous.

But then there is always Needleman. In cruising the web the three search words “Commonweal” and “Needleman” and “Gurdjieff” kicked up several dialogues with Needleman about the Gurdjieff message. It makes a heck of a lot more sense when Jacob says it. Much of it sounds like other stuff I know from other places, as a matter of fact.

And then I am chattering with my good friend of decades, Faye, and in explaining the absurdity of some of Gurdjieff’s teaching told her about the major scale proposal and change occurring between do and ti and between fa and mi. She responded that that makes perfect sense since the place to break into the process is best at the point at which the process has broken its own modulation. (That’s what George said too.) “But,” I protested, “he is not just talking about music he is talking about everything.”

“Of course,” she replied, “music is vibration, as is everything else.”

So, either the man is a charlatan, something Needleman has unequivocally denied, or my friends are being seduced, or I am missing something very big. You see I know as a scientific fact that everything is vibration, but how this fits together I do not know.

Perhaps you can inform me?