George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (Jan. 13, 1866 – Oct. 29, 1949) was an influential spiritual teacher of the early to mid-20th century who taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic “waking sleep”, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. He developed a method for doing so, calling his discipline “The Work” (connoting “work on oneself”) or “the Method”. According to his principles and instructions, his method for awakening one’s consciousness is different from that of the fakir, monk or yogi, so his discipline is also called (originally) the “Fourth Way”. At one point, he described his teaching as being “esoteric Christianity”.
Gurdjieff claimed that people cannot perceive reality in their current states because they do not possess consciousness but rather live in a state of a hypnotic “waking sleep.”
“Man lives his life in sleep, and in sleep he dies.” As a result of this condition, each person perceives things from a completely subjective perspective. He asserted that people in their typical state function as unconscious automatons, but that one can “wake up” and become a different sort of human being altogether.
Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connection with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as the 1914–18 war. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.
According to Gurdjieff, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person—namely, either the emotions, or the physical body or the mind—tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or centers, as Gurdjieff called them. As a result these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three—namely the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a “Fourth Way” which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and America. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, his discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.
In parallel with other spiritual traditions, Gurdjieff taught that one must expend considerable effort to effect the transformation that leads to awakening. The effort that one puts into practice Gurdjieff referred to as The Work or Work on oneself. According to Gurdjieff, “…Working on oneself is not so difficult as wishing to work, taking the decision.” Though Gurdjieff never put major significance on the term “Fourth Way” and never used the term in his writings, his pupil P.D. Ouspensky from 1924 to 1947 made the term and its use central to his own teaching of Gurdjieff’s ideas. After Ouspensky’s death, his students published a book titled The Fourth Way based on his lectures.
His teaching addressed the question of humanity’s place in the universe and the importance of developing latent potentialities—regarded as our natural endowment as human beings but rarely brought to fruition. He taught that higher levels of consciousness, higher bodies, inner growth and development are real possibilities that nonetheless require conscious work to achieve.
In his teaching Gurdjieff gave a distinct meaning to various ancient texts such as the Bible and many religious prayers. He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning than what is commonly attributed to them. “Sleep not”; “Awake, for you know not the hour”; and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within” are examples of biblical statements which point to a psychological teaching whose essence has been forgotten.
Gurdjieff taught people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. According to his teaching, this inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, the aim of which is to transform people into what Gurdjieff believed they ought to be.
Distrusting “morality,” which he describes as varying from culture to culture, often contradictory and hypocritical, Gurdjieff greatly stressed the importance of consciousness.
To provide conditions in which inner attention could be exercised more intensively, Gurdjieff also taught his pupils “sacred dances” or “movements,” later known as the Gurdjieff movements, which they performed together as a group. He also left a body of music, inspired by what he heard in visits to remote monasteries and other places, written for piano in collaboration with one of his pupils, Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff also used various exercises, such as the “Stop” exercise, to prompt self-observation in his students. Other shocks to help awaken his pupils from constant daydreaming were always possible at any moment.
The Work is in essence a training in the development of consciousness. During his lifetime Gurdjieff used a number of different methods and materials, including meetings, music, movements (sacred dance), writings, lectures, and innovative forms of group and individual work. Part of the function of these various methods was to undermine and undo the ingrained habit patterns of the mind and bring about moments of insight. Since each individual has different requirements, Gurdjieff did not have a one-size-fits-all approach, and he adapted and innovated as circumstance required. In Russia he was described as keeping his teaching confined to a small circle, whereas in Paris and North America he gave numerous public demonstrations.
Gurdjieff felt that the traditional methods of self-knowledge—those of the fakir, monk, and yogi (acquired, respectively, through pain, devotion, and study)—were inadequate on their own and often led to various forms of stagnation and one-sidedness. His methods were designed to augment the traditional paths with the purpose of hastening the developmental process. He sometimes called these methods “The Way of the Sly Man” because they constituted a sort of short-cut through a process of development that might otherwise carry on for years without substantive results. The teacher, possessing consciousness, sees the individual requirements of the disciple and sets tasks that he knows will result in a transformation of consciousness in that individual. Instructive historical parallels can be found in the annals of Zen Buddhism, where teachers employed a variety of methods (sometimes highly unorthodox) to bring about the arising of insight in the student.
Gurdjieff taught that group efforts both enhance and surpass individual efforts, preparing them to practice a new psychology of evolution. To accomplish this, he declared that he needed to constantly innovate and create new alarm clocks to awaken his sleeping students, “as Jesus had done 1900 years before.” Students regularly met with group leaders; both separately and in group meetings, and came together for “work periods” where intensive conscious labor, connected with the forms mentioned above. Work in the kitchen was a special task and sometimes elaborate meals were prepared. This work was the lowest of the three: food, air, and impressions. Special exercises were given for air and impressions as they were viewed as being more important.
According to Gurdjieff, the work of schools of the Fourth Way never remains the same for long. In some cases, this has led to a break between student and teacher as is the case of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff. The outward appearance of the School and the group work can change according to the circumstances. He believed that the inner individual expression, such as the practice of self-remembering with self-observation and the non-expression of negative emotions, always remains the same and could never change, for that is the guarantee of ultimate self-development.
Gurdjieff wrote and approved for publication three volumes of his written work under the title All and Everything. The first volume, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, is a lengthy allegorical work that recounts the explanations of Beelzebub to his grandson concerning the beings of the planet Earth. There are two English translations of this work, one carried out under his supervision and the other posthumously published in 1991. Gurdjieff was said to have deliberately tried to increase the effort needed to read and understand the book. As a result, the book is perhaps not the best introduction to his ideas since part of the book’s intention is “to frustrate and usurp the normal patterns of thought.” The second volume, Meetings with Remarkable Men, is written in an accessible manner, and purports to be an autobiography of his early years, but also contains many allegorical statements. His final volume, left unfinished (Life Is Real Only Then, When ‘I Am’) contains a fragment of an autobiographical description of later years, as well as transcripts of some of his lectures.
His own writings are generally not considered the best introduction to his thought. His own writings do not present any sort of systematisation that clearly existed in his private teachings. Several of his students kept records of these teachings and published their own accounts. The most highly regarded of these accounts are considered to be those of P D Ouspensky.
As Gurdjieff explained to Ouspensky … “for exact understanding exact language is necessary.” In his first series of writings, Gurdjieff explains how difficult it is to choose an ordinary language to convey his thoughts exactly. He continues…”the Russian language is like the English…both these languages are like the dish which is called in Moscow ‘Solianka’, and into which everything goes except you and me…” In spite of the difficulties, he goes on to develop a special vocabulary of a new language, all of it his own. He uses these new words particularly in the first series of his writings. However, in The Herald of Coming Good, he uses one particular word for the first time: “Tzvarnoharno”, allegedly coined by King Solomon.