G.I. Gurdjieff was one of the most important spiritual figures of the 20th century. Controversial and cloaked in mystery, his mythology is as rich as it is questionable. He claimed to have traveled from his native Armenia to the Far East, where he studied with a series of spiritual masters, all of which was recounted in his biography,”Meetings with Remarkable Men”. Gurdjieff seemed to have appeared out of thin air, materializing in the Western world with a deep knowledge of esoteric wisdom, armed with techniques and exercises for attaining spiritual states. His contention is that humanity is in a trance, a spiritual slumber that could be awakened through rigorous self-examination and certain techniques. He called this “The Work” or “The Fourth Way.
Despite being a significantly flawed individual, one can,nonetheless, in looking back upon the twentieth century, find that his ideas and writings contributed, either directly or indirectly, to a number of notable literary and cultural forms. Since his death in 1949, a growing body of secondary literature connected to his work has been produced in fields as disparate as psychology, philosophy, literature, health, ecology, and religion.
“Gurdjieff provides explanations that seem to ring true: people are asleep when they think they’re awake, people are automatic in their reactions when they think they’re choosing their actions. And he points the way to a kind of superb individuality, in right relation to the larger universe that literally grows within a person who cultivates it. He distills perceptions and methods that can also be found in Zen, in Sufism, in esoteric Buddhism and esoteric Christianity, into a way of looking at humanity’s condition that makes practical sense.”
…In 1915 a man of uncertain origin appeared in Moscow and gathered a core of devoted followers, students of his strange and unsettling system of esoteric doctrine and psychological development. In his mid-forties, with his shaved head, Mongol-like mustache, piercing eyes, and unnerving composure, he exuded an atmosphere of mystery, power, and knowledge, and those who had accepted him as their teacher followed his instructions without question.
Eager to expand his operations, he placed an advertisement in a Moscow newspaper announcing an unusual ballet entitled “The Struggle of the Magicians.” The advertisement attracted the attention of a writer, who was himself a student of the occult, as well as a theoretician of the higher dimensions of consciousness. Recently the writer had returned from an extended journey tothe East, where he had unsuccessfully sought out traces of forgotten knowledge and lost wisdom, and his lectures on his travels attracted interest from the curious interested in the paranormal. Approached by a student of the mysterious teacher, after much solicitation, the writer agreed to meet with the master. Yet this seeker of wisdom was dismayed to find that the place of his encounter was not one he might have expected. For it was not in an incense-filled ashram of a holy guru, but in a cheap back-street café, frequented by prostitutes and petty thieves, that the writer P. D. Ouspensky first met G. I. Gurdjieff. Thus was set in motion the long, complex, and often inscrutable history of the esoteric teaching known as the Fourth Way.
“Imagine, that you have only a few minutes, maybe an hour left to live; somehow you have discovered exactly when you will die. What would you do with this precious hour of your stay on Earth? Would you be able to complete all your things in this last hour, do you have a conscious idea about how to do it? And letting go your last breath would you feel satisfaction from knowing that you have done everything possible in this life to fulfill that you are constantly present, always vibrating, always waiting, like the son is waiting for the father-sailor?…The organic life is very fragile. The planetary body can die at any moment. It is always one step from death. And if you could manage to live one more day, it is only a chance accidentally given to you by nature. If you will be able to live even one more hour, you can consider yourself to be a lucky person. From the moment of conception we are living on borrowed time. Living in this world you have to feel death each second, so settle all your life affairs, even in your last hour. But how can anyone know exactly his last hour?… ( G.I. Gurdjieff )
After spending some time in Istanbul in 1920 and 1921, Gurdjieff was forced, finally, to move to Western Europe due to the political and social unrest of this turbulent time. Outside of Paris, at a chateau in Fontainebleau, Gurdjieff set up another incarnation of his renowned Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.In October of 1922, Gurdjieff set up this school at the Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon, outside of Paris. It was at the Prieuré that Gurdjieff met many notable figures, authors, and artists of the early twentieth century, many of whom went on to be close students and exponents of his teaching. Over the course of his life, those who visited and worked with him included the French author René Daumal; the renowned short story author from New Zealand, Katherine Mansfield; Kathryn Hulme, later the author of A Nun’s Life; P.L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins; and Jean Toomer, the author of Cane, whose work and influence would figure prominently in the Harlem Renaissance. Other artists and thinkers of the time were interested or influenced, perhaps more indirectly, such as Henry Miller, who wrote
an introduction to a book about Gurdjieff by Fritz Peters; Thornton Wilder, who writes about his meeting with Gurdjieff in his memoirs; as well as T.S. Eliot and Aldous Huxley.
On the individual level, most of us are not even fully conscious in the waking state, Gurdjieff reasoned, but go about our lives in a hypnotic stupour. “It may surprise you,” he said, “if I say the chief feature of a modern man’s being which explains everything else that is lacking in him is sleep. A modern man lives in sleep, in sleep he is born, and in sleep he dies.” He insisted that this form of sleep is observable in the most mundane activities. You go into a room only to find you have no recollection why you are there. You realize you’ve set down your keys and can’t remember where. You may have taken a drive along a path you frequent often, and have completely forgotten the trip.
Gurdjieff related these acts, innocent enough in themselves, to the spectrum of unconscious acts that drive human beings toward misery and destruction. “The unexamined life is not worth living,” Socrates said, and Gurdjieff believed this self-examination was only possible if full wakefulness was acheived.
He meant “sleep” in the hypnotic sense, where we follow unconscious cues often dictated to us by social forces. We internalize the values and beliefs of the clergy, the press, or the state, and mechanically take these as originating from ourselves.
…”To awake. To die. To be born”. Gurdjieff’s immortal words on how to acquire a soul. Unfortunately, the death of disciple Katherine Mansfied on Gurdjieff’s property, where she lived in a cramped, damp and cold den brought down the wrath of the establishment on Gurdjieff and his “Forest Philosophers” . The gifted and famous writer had gone to Gurdjieff in expectation of the a cure for tuberculosis that was destroying her lungs. Gurdjieff was accused of luring Miss Mansfield there at a time when she might have been receiving medical care that would have prolonged her life. On the other hand, his supporters argued that she was doomed anyhow, and the experience at least made her last months happy. It was all very inconclusive.
In spite of the unfavorable publicity that came out of the Mansfield episode, glowing reports from Gurdjieff’s satisfied pupils had brought him more students than he could accept. In 1924 he made a lucrative trip to the United States, during which his “sacred dances” were performed at Carnegie Hall,and it was rumored that he returned richer by $100,000. Groups had been started in America under the supervision of A.R. Orage and back in France the Prieuré was in good running order. Gurdjieff bought himself a powerful new automobile, and for all his students- bicycles.
Then, driving his car fast one night on the road from Paris to Fontainbleau, he lost control and rammed a tree. Though severely injured, he managed to drag himself out of the wreckage and wait for assistance. For five days he remained in a coma; when he gained consciousness, the Institute for the Harmonious Development of man heaved a collective sigh of relief. …