Once upon a time ... in a place far, far away
... I was introduced to an extraordinary “esoteric” teaching–a system of
ideas and practices designed to develop one’s consciousness and being through
a process of psycho-spiritual transformation. In the first year of
studying this teaching’s profoundly sophisticated psychological aspects,
I lived through an annus mirabilis–a period of fantastic revelations–which
had the effect of thoroughly challenging and overturning my grasp of the
meaning of “all and everything.” Thus, against all odds and expectations,
my understanding of the nature of my being and the possibilities of its
development was fundamentally, irrevocably, and miraculously altered.
The teaching, which had so dramatically redefined
my life, was called “the fourth way.” G.I. Gurdjieff, an enigmatic
mystic and “master,” brought this ancient system of knowledge and practices
to the West when he began working with groups of pupils in pre-revolutionary
Russia. Through his efforts there, and later in France and the United
States, Gurdjieff disseminated his teaching and established groups of pupils
throughout the Western world. Today, some fifty years after his death,
there are numerous “fourth way” and “Gurdjieff” groups–some of which trace
their lineage directly to him–that continue to pursue and promulgate his
ideas and practices. In addition, there are hundreds of books about
Gurdjieff and ‘the fourth way’–including his own three part series, All
And Everything, and several volumes by his most prominent pupil, P.D. Ouspensky,
which include In Search Of The Miraculous, The Fourth Way, and The Psychology
Of Man’s Possible Evolution.1
Even though I gained most of my knowledge
of Mr. G.2 and his system from these second-hand sources, the impact of
discovering his remarkable ideas inspired and illuminated me with extraordinary
feelings of awakening and self-discovery. To say that my world had
been turned upside down or that I was in the midst of a revolutionary re-evaluation
of everything which I had taken to be my knowledge would be an accurate,
but wholly inadequate description of that time. For all superlatives
and all words fail to capture the essence of that utterly magical period
during which I began working to ‘know myself’ in terms of ‘the fourth way.’
Like a character in a fairy tale, I felt as if the spell–by which I had
been ruled and deluded–had been lifted, and I had suddenly come to my senses.
The resultant intensity and richness of my experiences, imbued with the
distinct vividness of seeing things and seeing through things, as if for
the first time, amounted to a re-enchantment of the world. And from
the perspective of that amazing teaching, everything took on new meaning,
everything promised to reveal or disclose significance beyond anything
I had ever imagined possible.
I was awakening to a new world, even as my
old world was crumbling and dissolving. In accordance with the laws
of cosmogenesis, described by mystics and scientists alike, this new world
seemed to have emerged from a point source of light. Thus, out on
an apparent void, Gurdjieff’s extraordinary teaching had manifested: its
ethereal field emanating, radiating, expanding, illuminating, informing,
and crystallizing as a new order of meaning. And to the extent that
I could remember to remember and actively affirm “The Work”–as ‘fourth
way’ pupils refer to the teaching–“I” felt that “I” was resonating with
its luminous coherence.
In contrast to my knowledge of Mr. G.’s ideas,
my understanding of his teaching–my application and practical grasp of
its meaning–was shaped and directed by my efforts to study and “work on
myself” in terms of its prescriptions, and through an ongoing dialogue
with my friend, Chris Holmes, who had introduced me to Gurdjieff’s system.
As we both became deeply involved in and committed to pursuing that path,
he had become my most trusted and influential confidante, and vice-versa.
We were both doing graduate work in Psychology at the time we began to
study Gurdjieff and his work, and thus, we shared a common interest in
exploring the significance of his psychological ideas for numerous topics
within modern, academic psychology. In our opinion, ‘the fourth way’
was, by virtue of its sophistication, coherence, and immense practicality,
an unparalleled psychological teaching.
Much to our amazement and chagrin, we discovered
that we were essentially alone in believing that no other psychological
theory, philosophical approach, or set of ideas with which we were familiar
was even remotely comparable to Gurdjieff’s. For none of our friends
or colleagues shared our beliefs about this system’s astonishing significance.
Consequently, Chris and I entered into a unique partnership–one which involved
a dialectical progression in the evolution of our knowledge and understanding
of ‘the fourth way,’ specifically, and esoteric teachings, in general.
By sharing those observations of ourselves and others, drawn from our practice
of Gurdjieff’s methods and disciplines, we worked together to develop our
grasp of his teaching’s intriguing complexities and subtleties, and to
deepen and expand our knowledge and understanding of its meaning.
And in doing so, we enjoyed the immeasurable blessing and satisfaction
of participating in a truly astounding adventure of discovery and realization.
My initial involvement with Gurdjieff’s psychological
system constituted an ongoing shock treatment of such intensity that I
soon came to regard modern psychology as a very deeply flawed enterprise.
Its concern with human beings–as it finds them or supposes them to be–seemed,
in light of G.’s psychology of self-transformation, to be trivial and,
essentially, illusory. I did continue my graduate studies–mainly
because Chris Holmes had begun to write his doctoral dissertation on the
implications of Gurdjieff’s psychology for psychotherapy processes and
objectives. I assisted Chris with that work by serving as his research
assistant, and began to collaborate with him in formulating a critique,
derived from the ‘fourth way,’ of various aspects of modern psychology.
While Chris began teaching psychology at York
University in Toronto, after he had completed his doctorate, I dropped
out of graduate school. As much as I believed in the radical re-evaluation
of academic psychological thought that we were formulating, I was leery
of the professional resistance and prejudice that I believed we would encounter
in doing so.3 More importantly, I was dissatisfied with the prospect
of reducing my sense of discovery and awakening to something which
would fit the straight-jacket formalities of academic discourse.
I felt that, as a result of our pursuit of ‘the fourth way,’ Chris and
I had entered a new dimension of meaning and had embarked on a transforming
journey which, in its richness and its mystery, existed in a scale of consciousness
and being beyond anything that most psychologists could admit or even imagine.
Although Mr. Gurdjieff had cautioned his pupils
about the inadvisability of trying to write about his work before one was
ready to do so, my conceit was that this prohibition did not apply to me.
Seeking self-knowledge and self-transformation, in terms of ‘the fourth
way,’ had initiated a magical process of discovery and awakening.
In the birthing of this new “I”–this “stranger in a strange land”–I discovered
the insight, coherence, and sense of unity which allowed me to find my
voice as a writer and to sing my song. Thus, filled with confidence
and inspiration, I set out to write a book about Gurdjieff and my involvement
with ‘the fourth way.’
Unfortunately, I was to discover that, as
Mr. G. had warned, I was not ready to write about his teaching and, consequently,
it took me twenty-two years to complete my book! As difficult as
it is to admit that most strange and embarrassing fact, it is even more
difficult to explain how things happened. To say that I suffered
from writer’s block for almost six years and that I was disheartened by
my inability to work on my book in any meaningful way is the awful truth
of those very hard times. Nevertheless, when I attempted to resurrect
my work in 1991–fifteen years after I had begun to work on it–I had come
to understand how and why I had not been prepared to write about ‘the fourth
way.’ Surveying my previous efforts and wondering how I might overcome
the difficulties that had proved insurmountable–amongst them, most significantly,
my failure to write about who Gurdjieff was–I felt that I had failed because
of my inability to speak from my entire being. While everything about
my exposition of Mr. G.’s teaching was correct, in its own way, I was too
readily inclined to rely on recapitulating that which I had read, to base
everything I was saying on my intellectual grasp of The Work. Everything
that I wrote seemed to express my knowledge of the teaching; there was
too little understanding in my appreciation and commentaries. As
such, I believed that as long as I was centred in my head, my writing would
remain derivative and tellingly inadequate.
Thus, in seeking to make a new start, I resolved
to avoid relying so rigidly on my knowledge of what I had found in assorted
‘fourth way’ books and to attempt to speak in my own voice, to feel and
to sense what I understood to be essential in the matters that I raised.
And, as if by magic, I discovered that not only could I do so, but the
effort of approaching my work in this way sounded a new note in its evolution.
The understanding, which emerged from this new octave of effort, added
a coherence and comprehensiveness to my perspective that hitherto had not
Shocked to discover the extent to which I
was now capable of integrating various aspects of ‘the fourth way,’ I realized
that, just as Mr. G. had said, the same body of knowledge can take on much
deeper and more lucid meaning if one works to develop those parts of one’s
being other than one’s intellectual functioning. During the years
that my writing had been in limbo, I had not added significantly to my
intellectual grasp of the teaching. In fact, my reading of esoteric
material had been comparatively modest, and I had not been actively involved
in discussing or communicating ‘fourth way’ ideas. However, I had
continued to study and work on myself, and to apply the teaching to matters
of all stripes. So what had changed? To what did I owe this
transformation of understanding and the renaissance of effort it heralded?
Clearly, something had changed, with time, in my being.
I have described these changes, in part, as
a cautionary tale to the reader. As my attempts to write about Gurdjieff
and ‘the fourth way’ revealed, The Work is uniquely dynamic and, therefore,
it is necessary to realize that there is really nothing fixed in one’s
knowledge and understanding of its meaning. A ‘fourth way’ pupil
must always strive to be aware of the difference between what he or she
does know and does not know. By being mindful of that critical distinction,
one prepares oneself to receive the teaching’s higher influences and “feed”
on its refined impressions. For The Work rewards such vigilance and
effort with a commensurate growth in one’s knowledge, understanding, and
In 1991, when I renewed work on But I’ll Know
My Song Well, I discarded a large part of the manuscript and began anew
by writing a lengthy introduction to the book in which I provided biographical
information on Mr. Gurdjieff, outlined the essential tenets of his teaching,
and commented on his career and status as a most enigmatic historical figure.
I was most pleased with my efforts to portray Gurdjieff because, as I said,
I had been completely frustrated and paralyzed by my initial attempt, years
before, to address the great mystery: “Who was Gurdjieff?” This is
not to say that I answered the question satisfactorily. Rather, I
realized the futility of the question, and accepted the idea that, because
Mr. G. had consciously disguised himself so thoroughly, he was unknowable
and inexplicable as a historic figure. However, when viewed as a
figure who transcends and reveals the limitations of the historical perspective,
Gurdjieff appeared in an entirely different light.4 I realized
that, to me, he was an alien intelligence.
I use the term, “alien,” as it is appears
in Webster’s Dictionary: “differing in nature or character typically to
the point of incompatibility.”5 Everything about Gurdjieff
and his work emphasized the higher nature of his consciousness and being
and, thus, the incompatibility of his understanding of reality with that
of sleepwalking humanity. All of human beings’ most cherished assumptions
and conventional wisdom–regarding themselves, the universe, and the gods–were
incompatible, he repeatedly stated, with an awakened individual’s knowledge
and understanding. By “intelligence,” I am suggesting what Webster’s
defines as “an intelligent entity.”6 While I am not identifying Gurdjieff
as an extraterrestrial, per se, I do believe that in order to capture his
utterly unique essence and state of presence, it is necessary to consider
him as an incarnation of and messenger from some higher dimension of consciousness.
As much as this characterization of Mr. G.
may sound fanciful, bizarre, or melodramatic, this is the best I can do–after
studying the man and his teaching for nearly thirty years–in conveying
what I understand of him. Furthermore, I believe that the term, “alien
intelligence,” also captures the essence of my understanding of ‘the fourth
way.’ Everything in my experience with this remarkable body of knowledge
evokes a sense of wonder and assurance that, through my efforts to follow
and serve The Work, I am in communion with an intelligence, so vast and
so perfected, as to defy my understanding–even as it illuminates my being
and dispels my ignorance. The sense of awakening to reality, which
I have experienced through my participation in The Work, and the sacred
sense of humility it inspires in me leaves no doubt in my mind that this
teaching comes to us from a higher plane of consciousness or dimension
of reality. This is not an idea I have concocted to imbue my existence
with some fanciful, exaggerated sense of my own importance. Quite
the opposite. I realize the nothingness of myself as I am, but feel
and know, by its taste, that working to evolve consciously answers the
calling of an essential striving to fulfill my purpose as a human being.
Because BIKMSW eventually grew to such a length
as to be unmanageable, I decided to remove the Introduction and use that
material as the foundation of a second book. ‘An Alien Intelligence’
is the result of that decision. While it is not intended to be a
comprehensive exposition of ‘the fourth way,’ I believe that it provides
a provocative introduction to the teaching and to the extraordinary life
and times of G.I. Gurdjieff. Having come to The Work as a Psychology
student, I emphasize its psychological aspects and their impact on my re-evaluation
of what Psychology should be. However, as I will try to explain,
any attempt to speak of the ‘fourth way’ psychology–to the exclusion of
its cosmology and metaphysical aspects–limits one’s understanding of the
teaching and is, ultimately, illusory. Nevertheless, my presentation
of G.’s psychology, supplemented by some discussion of his cosmological
ideas, should provide the reader with an appreciation of the unique quality
of The Work.
When editing BIKMSW, a little more than a
year ago, I felt that I was being most appropriate in exercising caution
and effecting humility when addressing the question of the meaning of Mr.
G.’s work and the status of his legacy. In trying to be mindful about
what I did and did not know, I wanted to be responsible in my pronouncements
and respectful of others’ ideas. While I still aim to uphold those
ideals, I realize that, during the past couple of years, I have experienced
a fundamental change in my feelings about a number of matters concerning
Gurdjieff and ‘the fourth way.’ Galvanized by these changes, I have
devoted considerable time and effort to revisiting much of what I thought
I knew about these subjects. Sifting through the evidence and weighing
the material, I have arrived at what I consider to be a more refined understanding
of several important issues. Whereas I was willing previously to
undercut and understate my views, in the interest of striving for some
degree of objectivity, I am more interested now in sharing my opinions
and speculations–while admitting freely that much of what I am putting
forth amounts to nothing more and nothing less than educated guesses and
informed supposition. I do so, not because I have forgotten what
I do and do not know, but rather to stimulate consideration of these important
matters and, hopefully, to establish a dialogue with others who share these
Finally, it is important to understand that
I do not profess to be a ‘fourth way’ expert or teacher. I am not
now and have never been a member of any established ‘fourth way’ group.
As such, I have never worked with a teacher who is a part of the lineage
established by Mr. Gurdjieff. My knowledge and understanding of The
Work is, therefore, second-hand and incomplete. On the other hand,
I am a seeker who believes that even his limited access to G.’s teaching
has served to redefine his understanding of the nature and meaning of ‘all
and everything.’ In my attempts to study, observe, and serve The
Work, I have collaborated with Chris Holmes, for the past twenty-nine years,
and Anita Mitra, his wife, for almost as long. Along the way, we
have been joined, at different times, by many others who have shared our
Work aims and contributed to our efforts to fulfill them. To each
of those individuals and, especially, to Chris and Anita, I offer my thanks
and hope that An ‘Alien Intelligence’ will aid you in your efforts to seek
after truth and fulfill your most sacred “being-obligations.” And
to the readers–both those of you who know of The Work and those who do
not–I do hope that my efforts will aid you in knowing yourselves more fully
and realizing that which is, truly, your heart’s desire.
What Is Consciousness?
There was no small amount of irony in the fact
that Chris Holmes and I became involved with a psychological system, which
had transformed the meaning of our lives, while we were doing graduate
work in Psychology. An outsider would most reasonably surmise that
our academic studies were responsible for this revolutionary transformation
in our self-knowledge–that is, of course, unless he or she knew anything
about modern, academic psychology. For the discipline of academic
psychology, in its desperate and ill-conceived attempts to establish itself
as a scientific enterprise, had long ago lodged itself firmly atop a foundation
of what Mr. Gurdjieff would term “so much rubbish.” As a result,
everyone accepted then and, to this day, continues to accept the fact that
studying psychology–even counting oneself amongst the field’s elite–in
no way provides any special insight into or guidance for the realization
of better mental health, improved familial and personal relationships,
superior social adjustment, increased consciousness or awareness, or any
of the other tangible benefits that one might suppose would accrue to those
whose putative realm of expertise is the understanding of the human psyche
Psychologists do not know or understand themselves.
That is because psychologists do not study themselves. They study
others–rats, cats, rats, bats, chimpanzees, rats, fruit flies, hedge-hogs,
lunatics, rats, undergraduates, children, neurotics, psychotics, addicts,
rats, dingoes, dolphins, rats, Siamese fighting fish–but never themselves.
As a result, the extent to which they know and understand themselves in
no way surpasses that of the “unsophisticated” layman. Rats.
The situation is not, however, entirely hopeless.
The famous Eastern tale of “the blind men and the elephant” is instructive
in suggesting how the state of contemporary Western psychological theory
and knowledge should be understood. In that tale, a group of blind
men attempt to determine the nature of a mysterious, unknown beast: an
elephant. Each of the blind men touches a different part of the beast–the
trunk, the tail, the ear–and on the basis of that incomplete understanding,
each of them concocts a conflicting description of the elephant.
Of course, none of the blind men’s interpretations is correct. For,
as Robert Ornstein says, in his re-telling of the tale: "Each had felt
one part out of many. Each had perceived it wrongly. No mind
knew all: knowledge is not the companion of the blind. All imagined
something, something incorrect ...."
Within modern psychology, the plethora of
theories, regarding human beings’ essential attributes and fundamental
psychological principles, are analogous to the conflicting descriptions
of the elephant that the blind men proffered. The proponent of each
theory has managed to touch upon some part of the truth but, in failing
to recognize that his description is devoid of its proper relation to a
greater whole, does not understand that it is thereby limited and incomplete.
Adding to this confusion is the lack of a common language by which theorists
can communicate clearly in elaborating a more comprehensive and unified
model. What little consensus that does exist is often obscured or
lost in a confusion of mismatched terminologies and that intellectual myopia
which is all too frequently attendant upon reputations and other such vested
interests. Without agreement as to the fundamental parts of humans’
being, psychologists’ efforts possess all the coherence and direction of
the blind leading the blind.
“Knowledge is not the companion of the blind.”
That was hardly an appealing characterization of the field in which one
has chosen to make one’s career. Stumbling and bumbling through life
as a professional blind man was something less than that which I had envisioned
when I decided to further my education. From the time I began to
study psychology seriously, until the end of my first year of graduate
school, the schism–between my vision of what Psychology would and could
and should be, and that which I had unhappily discovered it to be–had been
a stone in my shoe: a source of irritation, from which relief was
always fortuitous and never more than short-lived. “All imagined
something, something incorrect.” What kind of knowledge was this?
Who were these people, whose search for truth and meaning involved such
bizarre machinations and abstruse imaginings? What value or legitimacy
could there possibly be in continuing in such a maze of roundabouts, one
way streets, and cul-de-sacs?
Certainly, I believed that something essential
was absent in modern psychology. It lacked that faculty or instrument
of insight which would lead to the discovery of its missing link: the conceptual
breakthrough which would unify and thereby illuminate the discipline’s
bewildering complex of facts and facets. The more I pondered this
failing, the more certain I became that psychologists would not and could
not ever make such a discovery. They did not do so; they have not
done so. They could have done so and they should have done so.
It is ironic and instructive to note that,
despite the proliferation of marvelous material resources used in research,
the increase in the utility and precision of psychologists’ instrumentation
has not resulted in a dramatic growth in the scope and sophistication of
their knowledge. To appreciate the exquisite subtlety of this irony,
I put forth the following question for your deliberation: what would comprise
the ultimate instrument or device for the study of psychology?
Is the answer not: a mind perfectly conscious
and aware of itself? A fully conscious mind: aware of its experiences
and behaviors; aware of its physical processes and states of presence;
aware of the entire field of circumstances, contexts, and influences associated
with each and every thought, feeling, memory, and act; aware of the flow
and the flux of all the events in one’s “inner” and “outer” worlds, such
that the dynamics, connections, and forces mediating the two are apprehended
accurately as they happen and, thereby, are remembered. A mind
that faithfully, unerringly witnesses and remembers itself and the world.
A perfectly conscious mind! Quite a
thought ... preposterous! unimaginable! ... the stuff that dreams
are made of ... a full-blown mind-blower! Nevertheless, these dreams
of perfection in an imperfect world aside, I would submit that understanding
and perfecting one’s consciousness, through the systematic acquisition
and cultivation of self-knowledge, is not only possible, but comprises
the faculty and instrument of in/sight by which knowledge is transformed
from something imaginary to something real. In other words: a missing
link. Without placing “consciousness” at the forefront of its investigations
and speculations, and without including systematic “self-study” as a legitimate
method of inquiry, Psychology is doomed to remain an ill-disguised pseudo-science–all
dressed up with no place to go.
“Consciousness”–what do I mean when I use
that term? What is consciousness? Well, that is the big question.
As far as questions go, it is pretty much in a class of its own.
It is the World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Superbowl, the Greater Intergalactic
Open, and the heavyweight championship of the world of Big Questions all
rolled into one. People win Nobel Prizes, receive huge research grants,
become knights of the realm, gain international acclaim and celebrity as
scholars and thinkers, and much, much more–just for beating around consciousness’
bushes or hanging out under its porch light searching for its keys.
Mathematicians forge its signature; physicists trace its shadow.
Chemists scour its soup pot; biologists and physicians listen to its heart
beat, draw its blood lines, and chart its pulse. In the most remote
ranges of the Himalayas, there are said to be monks who draw closer to
consciousness’ door simply by chanting its postal code. In those
payments of homage and concerted acts of imitation, human beings seek to
penetrate and decipher the most mysterious thing in the world: “consciousness.”
Ah, consciousness ... the cosmic key that
unlocks the doors to eternal mysteries ... the straw which stirs the universal
fluids ... the meaning of meaning ... the mirror with which God does
His tricks ... but what, pray tell, is it? You can know it–more or
less. You can lose it–without missing it–for the longest time. You
can focus it, reflect on it, summon it ... elevate, expand, and divide
it .... You can refine it, define it ... you can wine & rhyme
& divine it ... you can even make space and time for it ... but the
one thing you can never do is to know consciousness when you do not
have it. Pretty tricky business–trying to think of what consciousness
may or may not be. Questions about the nature of consciousness have
stymied some major league thinkers, driven others to the intersection of
Angst & Despair, and simply worn out the rest. Kind of makes
me sleepy ....
Philosophers, psychologists, scientists, artists,
mystics, and spiritual figures alike agree that human beings are, in some
way and to some degree, self-conscious, and that this attribute
apparently distinguishes human beings from all other creatures and
forms of life on this planet. To be aware of or conscious of oneself
seems to be a distinct and immensely important human attribute. Beyond
that widely endorsed supposition, however, a myriad of difficulties and
differences arise in the innumerable attempts to ascertain its meaning
and account for its significance. Nonetheless, many modern thinkers–including
several of this century’s most brilliant scientists–regard significant
progress in their respective fields of study and humanity’s quest for meaning
to be inextricably yoked with efforts to understand the nature of consciousness.
Given its significance and obvious relevance
to their discipline, one would expect psychologists to be a primary source
of insights or hypotheses about the solution to this fantastic riddle.
Good luck. According to the dominant theoretical perspective in modern
psychology– behaviourism–the “mystery of consciousness” was solved some
seventy-five years ago when the question was rudely, but scientifically,
given the old heave-ho.
Yes indeed, it is a most curious and revealing
fact that psychologists, at one time, banned all discussions of “consciousness”
and “awareness” from their domain in order to conform to what they imagined
to be the demands of achieving scientific rigour. Attempting to divorce
“psychology” from its original meaning as “the science of the soul”–from
the Greek science (logos) and soul (psyche)–and all the accompanying associations
with such decidedly murky matters as religious and metaphysical speculations
and queries, the discipline’s founding fathers sought to establish a “science
of psychology” by defining its purview in terms of that which
was both measurable and quantifiable. This quest for the “new improved”
psychology took its “great leap forward” in the 1920s with the advent of
behaviourism: a school of thought distinguished by its insistence on defining
psychology solely in terms of that which was externally observable.
Ergo, out the laboratory window went all “experience” and any term referring
to such “nonexistent” (i.e., unobservable) processes. A hint, as
to the profound insight from which this defining proclamation arose, may
be gleaned from a remark made by John B. Watson, behaviourism’s progenitor:
“No one has ever touched a soul, or seen one in a test tube.” Likewise,
extending the popular maxim, “out of sight–out of mind,” to “I don’t mind–I’ve
no mind with which to mind,” and elevating it to the heady status of first
principle, Watson established an approach which was to dominate Psychology
for the next half century. Hence, “consciousness” was discarded as
being, in Watson’s words, “neither definable nor a usable concept ... merely
another word for the soul” and, therefore, “just as unprovable (and) unapproachable.”
In 1962, Sir Cyril Burt wryly described the
results of Watson’s mindless manifesto to mean “that psychology, having
first bargained away its soul and then gone out of its mind, seems now,
as it faces its untimely end, to have lost all consciousness.”5 However,
having eventually realized, after some forty years of wandering in the
wilderness, how patently absurd and utterly untenable such a position was,
some psychologists began to regain “consciousness” and “awareness”–albeit
in a most confused, fragmented, dulled and disoriented state. Sadly,
despite this intention to come to and regain its senses, the discipline
was neither revolutionized nor illuminated. The lost souls, who proudly
bear the behavioral legacy and perpetuate its ersatz science, continue
to reign supreme in most areas and departments of Psychology, blindly resisting
and denying the significance of consciousness–even though they have come
to recognize the existence of “the mind.”
Unfortunately, what meagre degree of
respectability and legitimacy the subject of consciousness has assumed
within Psychology, during the past thirty years, amounts only to superficial
or cosmetic changes. Those brave and bold enough to pursue the matter
of consciousness directly have not fared particularly well. And while
it would be comforting and convenient to blame the resistance of the established
orthodoxy for this lack of impact, it must be admitted that, even if there
is some truth in such accusations, that which has been produced by those
studying consciousness has not been–with a few notable exceptions–particularly
important or interesting. Indeed, within the so-called “consciousness
literature” and psychologists’ more tangential references and allusions
to the topic, there exist a host of commonly accepted assumptions and suppositions
about the nature of consciousness which are either clearly wrong, or at
best, moot points. Certainly, there has been precious little of value
or significance in the development of a sophisticated, systematic analysis
Of course, one could hardly expect that some
integrated, comprehensive, lucidly formulated psychological system, based
on the study and understanding of the nature of consciousness, would “select
itself” and suddenly evolve out of the void. That, of course, could
not happen. No, as psychologists would be quick to point out, such
an achievement would have to be the result of a long, laborious, and exacting
process of careful deliberation, exploration, observation, and theorizing,
submitted to and corrected by experimental testing. Given the intrinsically
mysterious and elusive nature of consciousness, it will surely be many,
many years before psychologists begin to grasp even its most rudimentary
properties or its essential significance. All this seems quite clear
On the other hand, one may walk into any reasonably
stocked bookstore or library in the world, look in the “Religion” or “Philosophy”
sections, and come across any number of “esoteric teachings,” wherein one
would discover systematic expositions of consciousness and psychology distinguished
by a clarity, sophistication, and significance which completely dwarfs
and trivializes anything contemporary Western psychologists proffer.
(The plot thickens.) While it is rather a tall order to explain why
so few people make this extraordinary discovery, I will attempt to provide
the basis on which that understanding might be realized. To do so,
I must begin by explaining what I mean by “esoteric teachings.”
In A New Model Of The Universe, P.D.
Ouspensky argued that “esotericism” and its significance in human history
is the idea least understood by most people–including (and often especially
so) those considered by the standards of contemporary culture and civilization
to be well educated.1 Very few people would be able to volunteer
the identity of those teachers and teachings subsumed by the term “esoteric.”
Yet, strangely, one would be hard pressed to find anyone who has not heard
of an esoteric teaching or “master,” and who has not come in contact with
the external (“exoteric”) content of an esoteric teaching.
According to Ouspensky, the idea of esotericism
runs throughout the course of human history: that there exists a
secret knowledge–superior to all “ordinary knowledge”–which certain highly
evolved individuals have apprehended by perfecting their consciousness
and being. Such knowledge is said to contain secrets about the essential
nature of human beings and the cosmos. Moreover, this ancient wisdom,
which is based on modes and realms of inquiry essentially unrecognized
by and unknown within modern science and education, is said to provide
meaning which surpasses and subsumes solely intellectual knowledge.
Such is the profundity and power of this knowledge that it is concealed
in various ways and degrees: being revealed only to those who submit to
the long and arduous preparations and tests necessary for its acquisition
and the responsibility of its trust.
For this purpose, there have existed, for
thousands of years, numerous esoteric “schools”: organizations in which
the knowledge, methods, and disciplines, comprising this ancient wisdom,
have been accumulated and passed on by direct tuition from generation to
generation. From these schools, there have emerged, at indefinite
intervals in history, remarkable leaders and teachers who have created
and left as their legacy a new religion, a new system of thought, philosophical
school, or art form which, in terms appropriate to the peculiarities of
the time and place of its appearance, provides a method of conscious evolution.
Zoroaster, Moses, Gautama the Buddha, Lao
Tsu, Pythagoras, Jesus Christ, Socrates, and Plato–as well as many less
celebrated prophets, sages, and masters–are said to have belonged to esoteric
schools. That the possibility of such an association appears so rarely,
in the numerous accounts of these extraordinary figures and the interpretations
of their works, indicates the extent to which even the idea of “esotericism,”
let alone its significance, remains hidden for most people. To understand
why this is so and why esoteric schools intentionally cultivate this relative
obscurity, one need only examine the distortion and defilement of their
teachings which inevitably transpires when they become popularized by entering
the “exoteric” or “outer” circle of life. The institutionalization
and popularization of religions represent such instances.
According to the esoteric tradition, religions
consist of an esoteric and exoteric aspect–an inner and outer circle, respectively.
Esoteric schools, according to this view, are the source of religious teachings.
However, as such teachings are disseminated and become increasingly popular,
a new external organization, meaning, and purpose is imposed upon them–diverging
significantly from that of the original inner circle. As a result,
the established exoteric organization comes to bear little resemblance
to the esoteric group. In many cases, once the exoteric organization
has established its doctrines and activities, it comes to regard its esoteric
cohorts as being heretical; thereby legitimizing their expulsion from and
persecution by “the church.” The preservation of the esoteric group’s
activities continues then in either hidden or disguised ways, and proves
to be another reason necessitating that such schools be organized as secret
orders of initiates. Thus, such esoteric groups as the Essenes and
Kaballahists, the Gnostics, the Sufis and dervishes, lamas, Vedantists
and yogis have been associated with Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism,
and Hinduism, respectively.
If one accepts the idea of the existence of
a “hidden” or “secret” knowledge, one’s interpretation and meaning of essentially
“all and everything” must be examined in a new light. It becomes
clear that, as Ouspensky says, there exist two histories of humanity.
There is the history of the exoteric, or outer circle–that with which we
are familiar and regard as being established in fact. And there is
also the history of the esoteric, or inner circle–of which we know practically
nothing. Yet, it is the inner circle which, according to esoteric
teachings, guides the most significant manifestations of the outer
circle’s activities, particularly its evolution. Evolution, in esoteric
terms, does not refer to the random, mechanical unfolding of biological
and physical change that modern science describes. Instead, it comprises
processes of purposeful, conscious development and realization of higher
levels of consciousness and intelligence. Taken in its highest sense,
the esoteric conception of evolution allows for the possibility of an individual
perfecting and transforming his or her consciousness and being to such
a degree as to realize enlightenment. Such actualized beings are
said to achieve union with God.
What do I mean when I speak about “perfecting”
and “transforming” one’s level of consciousness and being? Well,
I do not know exactly–existing as I do in a very imperfect state and as
a decidedly ordinary being. I can only say that esoteric teachings
claim that human beings possess dormant faculties of “higher” consciousness
and intelligence which may be awakened. Those who have developed
conscious awareness and control of these faculties are said to be beings
of a superior order. They are capable of feats which are, for us,
literally miraculous. They live in this world, but in accordance
with the percepts and precepts of other realms and orders of meaning and
intelligence. Having liberated themselves from the bonds of humans’
lower nature– that which, in our “normal” state, enslaves and imprisons
us–they assume the sacred obligations of bearing those responsibilities
and duties appropriate to their elevated levels of being.
Of course, this description is nothing more
than the crudest caricature of a consciously evolved being. Such
luminaries apprehend and exist in such a radically different order of reality
that it is literally beyond not only the ordinary’s individual’s comprehension,
but also his or her imagination. According to these perfected individuals,
we fail to perceive or understand the true nature and significance of ourselves
and our world–our reality–because we are unaware of the existence of higher
realms and our intimate connections to them. That which remains unknown
and unconscious in the minds of normal men and women, they apprehend consciously.
From the vantage point of those experiencing the coherence of superior
dimensions of existence, life–as we normally live it–and reality–as we
normally define it–are revealed to be shadowy worlds of appearances.
Deprived of all its relations to these higher levels of consciousness and
intelligence, which are its source, our normal reality is not recognized
as a projection of these greater realms of illumination. Hence, we
live in a world of illusion: a desultory and ultimately insubstantial play
of our imaginations and personal, subjective interpretations and constructions.
When I began graduate school, the concept of
“esotericism” meant nothing to me. And nothing that I learned there
redressed my ignorance about the subject. Nevertheless, I was keenly
interested in any ideas that would both challenge the orthodoxy of behaviourism
and forward a theoretical position which would meaningfully address the
overwhelming complexity and richness of the normal waking experience: that
which psychologists commonly referred to as “the stream of consciousness.”
In keeping with that orientation, I was fascinated by the so-called “altered
states of consciousness”–the catch-all term for the myriad of experiences
which depart from and reveal the arbitrary nature of our definitions of
“normal” experience and consensual reality. Similarly, I was also
sympathetic to the essential legitimacy of various “paranormal phenomena”–although
I maintained a healthy skepticism as to the validity of many of the alleged
instances of “supernatural” events and their putative explanations.
Nevertheless, my interest in these fringe areas of Psychology simply added
to my belief as to the essential inadequacy of the discipline’s established
Chris Holmes had strongly influenced and shaped
my thoughts and perspectives on many of these issues and, in fact, he was
largely responsible for my decision to pursue a post-graduate degree in
Psychology. During our undergraduate years, he had majored in Psychology,
while I had studied Sociology. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm for his
work and our many conversations about his studies had piqued my interest
and led me eventually, after I had graduated, to return to school to take
up the study of psychology.
During the time that Chris was completing
his Ph.D. at the University of Waterloo, he chanced, due to his growing
interest in the paranormal, to come across P.D. Ouspensky’s book,
In Search Of The Miraculous. A noted Russian mathematician and journalist,
Ouspensky had pursued his interests in mysticism and philosophy by traveling
extensively throughout the near and far East, during the early 1900s, seeking
to discover a system of “higher knowledge.” He was convinced that
such knowledge did exist, and that there must be teachers somewhere who
were the bearers of this esoteric legacy. Although he had witnessed
many interesting phenomena and encountered many intriguing and fascinating
characters in connection with his search, Ouspensky returned to Russia,
disappointed by his failure to realize his aim. Ironically, it was
in Moscow in 1915 that, through a series of apparently fortuitous events,
Ouspensky met the teacher he had been seeking in his travels: a man whom
he quickly came to regard as being, if not an emissary of a school of higher
knowledge, at least one who had made significant contact with such a group.
The mysterious, charismatic teacher was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, a
Caucasian of Greek-Armenian parentage, who had also apparently traveled
for many years throughout the East on a quest akin to Ouspensky’s.
By the time Ouspensky met him, Gurdjieff had
already been working with several groups of pupils in Moscow and St. Petersburg–the
beginnings of his efforts to bring his teaching to the West. Neither
the nature nor the significance of Gurdjieff’s teaching can be meaningfully
described with a convenient phrase or neat label. In Search Of The
Miraculous, for instance, consists almost exclusively of an exposition
of various aspects of Gurdjieff’s system–primarily through Ouspensky’s
brilliant recounting of the former’s lectures and discussions with his
pupils in the years 1915-1917–yet it represents only an introduction to
serious study of Gurdjieff’s work, indicative of his teaching’s intricacy
With that caveat in mind, one may consider
the ideas and practices that Gurdjieff taught as being a method of awakening
and developing those higher faculties of human consciousness and intelligence
which are normally dormant. His system begins with the study of human
beings, as they are, in order to suggest the miraculous possibilities of
what they are capable of becoming through a process of conscious evolution.
This conscious transformation of a human’s being demands that he or she
obey the ancient esoteric dictum: “Know thyself.” To know oneself,
according to G., demands the parallel study of oneself and the world.
For such study, a system is necessary; self-study undertaken willy-nilly
or in terms of any arbitrarily selected or determined approach is useless.
Instead, a system of ideas and practices linking the study of oneself and
that of the world–with the aim of allowing the individual to “know oneself,
the universe, and the gods”–is necessary. Essentially, that was the
nature and purpose of Gurdjieff’s teaching.
The term, “the fourth way,” denotes both the
teaching’s connections with and distinction from the three classic esoteric
paths or ways of conscious development–those of the fakir, the monk, and
the yogi. The way of the fakir involves the transformation of one’s
being through the discipline of the body, resulting in the attainment of
will. The path of the monk focuses on mastering worldly desires through
faith and devotion. The yogi’s way of self-realization is through
knowledge, concentrating on the development and control of the mind.
While acknowledging that each of these ways
can yield significant results, Gurdjieff contended that each also imposed
formidable limitations on most aspirants’ efforts. The ‘fourth way,’
he explained, was a method designed to surmount the respective deficiencies
of the other three paths by co-ordinating the simultaneous awakening of
the distinct intelligences of the body, the emotions, and the intellect.
As a result, the student’s development was at once accelerated and economized–especially
so, because the pattern and focus of effort, which the teacher prescribed,
took each individual’s unique characteristics into account. Other
differences between the traditional methods and ‘the fourth way,’ which
make the latter seem particularly well-suited to Westerners, are the system’s
emphasis on the development of understanding through self-study–rather
than simple obedience to authority–and its accessibility. To follow
the ‘fourth way’ teaching, there is no need to isolate oneself or retire
from the rounds of daily life by entering a cloistered community.
Instead, it is the path of “the sly man,” who is, as the Sufis say, “in
the world, but not of it.”
At the very heart of Mr. Gurdjieff’s teaching
is his claim that human beings are “asleep.” What we take to
be our normal waking state of consciousness, he says, is a “waking sleep”–not
sleep as we normally understand it, but rather a state of hypnotic sleep
and mechanical, associative existence. That virtually no one believes
or even suspects this to be true reflects both the extent to which our
lives are lived out in this sleep, and the existence of several other unrecognized
psychological illusions that are critical in maintaining our characteristic
state of ignorance. In addition to “consciousness,” man also ascribes
to himself the properties of unity, will, and freedom. According
to Gurdjieff, humans’ apparent possession of such attributes is an illusion.
Man–a sleepwalker sleepwalking through a sleeping world–is a machine: an
automaton who is not properly conscious, unified, able to do anything,
or free. Nor does he know himself. Unable to recognize how
he mistakenly assumes that he possesses unity, will, and freedom, man is
lost and imprisoned by the many grand illusions and conceits he entertains
about himself. Unable to WAKE UP, he does not realize that he is
asleep; he does not understand that his lack of consciousness profoundly
limits his understanding of his existence, that of the universe, and the
In our lives, as we live them “normally,”
everything happens. All our great ideas about what we do and what
we should do are just so much fanciful dreaming and hot air, according
to Gurdjieff. In a conversation with Ouspensky, he spoke of man as
a machine who cannot do:?
“... man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people
think that they can do, all people want to do, and the first question all
people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything
and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be
understood. Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all
that is done by him, all that comes from him–all this happens. ....
“Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions
words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the result
of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man
cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says,
does, thinks, feels–all this happens. Man cannot discover anything,
invent anything. It all happens.
“To establish this fact for oneself, to understand
it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions
about man .... Everything happens. ...
“But no one will ever believe you if you tell
him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and the most unpleasant
thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive
because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth.”?
In addition to this seemingly preposterous
statement, Gurdjieff makes the equally radical assertion that there is
an absence of unity in man–that is, that he possesses no permanent “I”
“One of man’s most important mistakes
... one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I.
To this less than flattering depiction of man’s
sleeping, mechanical existence, Gurdjieff adds one potentially positive
element: that it is possible to awaken and escape this imprisonment.
He often said that, for a serious person, this possibility of escape can
be the only thing of real importance. But few people give any thought
to escape–for the simple reason that hardly anyone realizes that he or
she is in prison, and would not believe you if you told them so.
And even fewer people are interested in making an effort to escape, because
to do so means long and hard work.
“Man such as we know him, the ‘man-machine,’
the man who cannot ‘do,’ and with whom and through whom everything ‘happens,’
cannot have a permanent and single I. His I changes as quickly as
his thoughts, feelings, and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering
himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different
person, not the one he was a moment ago.
“Man has no permanent and unchangeable I.
Every thought, every mood, every desire, every sensation, says ‘I.’
And in each case it seems to be taken for granted that this I belongs to
the Whole, to the whole man, and that a thought, a desire, or an aversion
is expressed by this Whole. In actual fact there is no foundation
whatever for this assumption. Man’s every thought and desire appears
and lives quite separately and independently of the Whole. And the
Whole never expresses itself, for the simple reason that it exists, as
such, only physically as a thing, and in the abstract as a concept. ...
Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking ‘I.’ And each
time his I is different. Just now it was a thought, now it is a desire,
now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is
a plurality. Man’s name is legion.
Escaping means not only awakening from sleep,
but also beginning to develop consciousness and to acquire those other
properties that most people believe they already possess: unity, will,
the capacity to do, and freedom. Escape and awakening begin with
self-study, Gurdjieff taught, and self-study begins with self-observation.
In order to overcome one’s mechanicalness, one must first study oneself
as a machine: learning to identify the structures, functions, and laws
governing the organism. Proper self-observation is essential to understanding
oneself as a machine, G. emphasized, because of the complexity involved
in establishing the various parts, their connections, and relations.
Understanding the machine’s operations requires a correct understanding
of the division of its functions: in order that one may define and know
them–not simply in words, but by their inner “taste” or “sensation.”
Gurdjieff describes two types of self-observation:
analysis, and recording. The former consists of attempts to answer
questions; the latter, simply registering in one’s mind that which is observed.
Initial attempts to self-observe should never involve analysis, according
to G. One uses self-observation as a method of recording–in order
to study and know oneself as a machine. Having acquired an understanding
of the fundamental principles operative in the human machine’s functioning,
one begins to self-observe and to acquire real self-knowledge.
My first attempts to self-observe quickly convinced
me of the great truth and wisdom contained in Gurdjieff’s contentions about
man’s psychological illusions. Self-observation provided an abundance
of evidence for the validity of his claims. I saw how I was indeed
asleep–how my normal state of consciousness was, for the most part, a hypnotic
spell!– ... how I was a machine, a mechanical man to whom and in whom everything
happened! ... how I could not do! ... how there was no permanent “I” to
say “I” truthfully, and how, as Mr. Gurdjieff said, once one learned to
observe the multiplicity of one’s “I”s, there was no longer any need to
go to the cinema .... I saw how I was in prison.
Those astonishing discoveries shocked me so
thoroughly and so deeply that it is impossible to convey the sense of wonder
and awe that they inspired. In Gurdjieff’s extraordinary ideas and
practices, I had discovered a psychological system which was, to me, unequivocally
and dramatically superior–light years beyond–anything and everything in
modern psychology. Even this most cursory examination and application
of ‘the fourth way’ had convinced me that this was a theory which comprised
psychology’s missing link!
The immense value of self-observation immediately
impressed itself upon me; an appreciation which increased in direct proportion
to the effort I afforded the practice. Likewise, I soon understood
that the proper study of consciousness must, as G. said, include self-observation.
On one occasion, Ouspensky expressed the view that consciousness is indefinable.
“All this is rubbish ... the usual scientific
sophistry .... Only one thing is true in what you have said: that
you can know consciousness only in yourself. Observe that I say you
can know, for you can know it only when you have it. And when you
have not got it, you can know that you have not got it, not at that very
moment, but afterwards. I mean that when it comes again you see that
it has been absent a long time, and you can find or remember the moment
when it disappeared and when it reappeared. You can also define the
moments when you are nearer to consciousness and further away from consciousness.
But by observing in yourself the appearance and disappearance of consciousness
you will inevitably see one fact which you neither see nor acknowledge
now, and that is that moments of consciousness are very short and are separated
by long intervals of completely unconscious, mechanical working of the
machine. You will see then that you can think, feel, act, speak,
work, without being conscious of it. And if you learn to see in yourselves
the moments of consciousness and the long periods of mechanicalness, you
will as infallibly see in other people when they are conscious of what
they are doing and when they are not.”4
By observing myself, I came to see how “I”
could and did think, act, speak, and work without being conscious of it,
and that, as Gurdjieff stated, moments of consciousness were extremely
short and infrequent. Furthermore, I also began to see how others
too were not conscious–that this was the norm. It was an amazing
discovery–a very great shock–to realize that this sleep and mechanical
working of the machine is the definitive feature of people’s so-called
“waking consciousness.” Before reading Gurdjieff, there had been
nothing to prepare me for this; certainly, no one in Western psychology
or philosophy put forth such a view. And yet, just as Gurdjieff predicted,
observing the appearance and disappearance of consciousness in myself led
inevitably to recognizing it in others. To me, it became clear that
we are sleepwalkers.
There was one other fundamental principle
of Gurdjieff’s psychology which struck me as indisputable evidence of the
profundity of his teaching; forcing me to call into question everything
that I had believed I knew. Like many other aspects of ‘the fourth
way,’ this principle elucidated something which seemed, on later reflection,
to be undeniably true, something which I had somehow sensed but never really
understood, and something which had eluded my initial attempts at self-observation.
In the latter respect, I was not alone. Ouspensky describes a meeting at
which G. asked each of the pupils present to describe the most important
thing that he or she had noticed during self-observation. There were various
interesting observations offered in reply, but no one stated what should
have been most obvious, as Gurdjieff explained:?
“Not one of you has noticed the most important
thing that I have pointed out to you .... That is to say, not one
of you has noticed that you do not remember yourselves.” (He gave
particular emphasis to these words.) “You do not feel yourselves;
you are not conscious of yourselves. With you, ‘it observes’ just
as ‘it speaks,’ ‘it thinks,’‘it laughs.’ You do not feel: I observe,
I notice, I see. Everything still ‘is noticed,’ ‘is seen.’ ...
In order really to observe oneself one must first of all remember oneself.”
(He again emphasized these words.) “Try to remember yourselves when
you observe yourselves and later on tell me the results. Only those
results will have any value that are accompanied by self-remembering.
Otherwise you yourselves do not exist in your observations. In which
case what are all your observations worth?”
What did Gurdjieff mean when he asserted
that “you do not remember yourselves?” How does “self-remembering”
relate to “self-observing?” Ouspensky made the following distinction:?
Self-remembering is an attempt to be aware
of yourself. Self-observation is always directed at some definite
function: either you observe your thoughts, or movements, or emotions,
or sensations. It must have a definite object which you observe in
yourself. Self-remembering does not divide you, you must remember
the whole, it is simply the feeling of ‘I’, of your person.?
Viewed from another perspective, the elusive
concept of “self-remembering” may be construed as “self-forgetting.”
That is, it involves “being present” in such a way that one is removed
from and free of the continual stream of thoughts, dreams, images, and
concerns by which one is usually carried through the waking hours ... the
host of feelings and concerns about oneself and the world in which one
is normally invested ... the plurality of interests and the parading legion
of changing “I”s with which one is identified ... the habitual physical
postures and processes which unconsciously govern the body and determine
its states of presence ... in sum, all that in which one’s consciousness
and experience of one’s “I” is almost wholly absorbed and embedded.
To the extent that one can free oneself of attachment to these usual constituents
and configurations of one’s normal self (or, more correctly, selves) one
forgets one’s usual self. And in that sense, “self-remembering” consists
of “self-forgetting.” With time and effort, a radically different
“I” emerges and is realized in the novelty and wonder of simply sensing
and feeling “I am here.” In such rare instances, one’s experience
of oneself and the world is especially vivid and unforgettable. For
most people, such experiences typically arise involuntarily–frequently
in unusual or unfamiliar circumstances, such as when traveling, or in conditions
of great stress or danger, when even the very impression of time’s flow
may be dramatically altered.
This act of remembering oneself–such that
one attempts to do nothing more than hold the sensation and feeling of
“I am here”–is much more difficult than, at first blush, it might seem.
Having repeatedly failed to do so–other than for the most fleeting moments–Ouspensky
soon concluded that G. was neither exaggerating the extent, nor the importance
of people’s inability to remember themselves. In addition, he realized
that the concept of “self-remembering” was the key to understanding Gurdjieff’s
other comments about consciousness: that one can know it when one has it,
and one can know–when it comes again–that it has been absent for a long
time. Somewhat chagrined by his experiments with self-remembering,
Ouspensky related his observations to Gurdjieff, who replied:?
“What else do you want? ... This is
a very important realization. People who know this” (he emphasized
these words) “already know a great deal. The whole trouble is that nobody
knows it. If you ask a man whether he can remember himself, he will
of course answer that he can. If you tell him that he cannot remember
himself, he will either be angry with you, or he will think you an utter
fool. The whole of life is based on this, the whole of human existence,
the whole of human blindness. If a man really knows that he cannot
remember himself, he is already near to the understanding of his being.”?
Attempting to practise self-remembering–even
when one fails to do so–is of unparalleled importance in the study of consciousness
and oneself. ‘Real psychology begins,’ Ouspensky argues, “when a
man realizes and bears in mind that he does not remember himself, and that
nobody remembers, and yet there is a possibility of self-remembering ....”8
In this way, a critical dimension of consciousness–one which is generally
ignored or granted only the most oblique acknowledgment in Western thought–is
identified. Between the poles of “waking sleep” and “self-remembering,”
there exists a continuum of degrees and gradations of self-awareness.
Once one becomes aware of this dimension, begins to observe its contents
and fluctuations, and attempts to actively alter one’s experience of it
by trying to remember oneself, one undertakes the study of a new psychology.
“A Figure Who Drops Into History ... ”
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
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
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
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.”
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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.
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
* * *
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
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.
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.