Sunday, December 28, 2014

In Praise of Gurdjieff

During a moment of clarity this afternoon, I realized that I must write about my long-time interest in the teaching of George Gurdjieff (left) and my admiration for his system of ideas known as The Work.

This is only fair, both to those who still follow The Work (I do not) and to myself, as well. If not for my sincere interest in Gurdjieff, I might not have followed Gulliver for five years, as I did; and I would not have sought out another teacher of Gurdjieff when I moved to Massachusetts in 1976. Not to acknowledge this interest would be to imply that I was a brainless idiot hypnotized by a mad man.

Gulliver might have been mad, and I may have been hypnotized, but I have never been a brainless idiot. Gurdjieff appealed not only to the religious searcher in me but also to the intellectual, trained at The Cilley Academy and Whambam College.

I have persistently associated Gulliver with Gurdjieff in my writings about Gulliver, and if I don’t set the record straight here and now, Gurdjieff and his followers will be guilty by association with my former manipulative guru—who used Gurdjieff to attract his own devoted followers but in the end did not represent Gurdjieff well, in my opinion. So here are a few things I find notable about Gurdjieff and his teaching. Don’t expect anything like a summary, only a sincere tip of the hat.

George Gurdjieff (1866?–1949) appeared in the West, first in Russia, then in western Europe, at a time when all the old certainties seemed to have evaporated. World War I came and went, and modernism was upon us, with its disenchantment and cynicism about the old ways, including religion, e.g. the Catholic Church.

Armed with special knowledge, possibly from The East, though he never acknowledged his sources, Gurdjieff seemed to teach a path around this disenchantment. He claimed to merge the wisdom of the East with the science of the West, while propounding what one of his followers referred to as “esoteric Christianity.” It wasn’t that Christianity was useless, Gurdjieff seemed to say; only that Westerners were becoming deaf to its real message and a new bell needed ringing to wake them up and move them toward “the higher.”

About that term “the higher”—Gurdjieff usually dispensed with Christian terms like God and Jesus and Church, although his magisterial thousand-page tome Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson ends in theophany. In fact, God is present throughout the book, although He usually gets new, longer titles like Our Common Father Endlessness.

Indeed, most of the things in Beelzebub are “new” and “longer.” Gurdjieff taught a system of cosmology that was linked with a detailed analysis of the human psyche, and in various versions of his system he seems to have altered his vocabulary to suit students of the moment. In Beelzebub the language is sometimes so complex that it defies reading.

One example: In other contexts, Gurdjieff spoke of a “law of seven,” stating that processes unfold the way a musical octave does, including two “missing semitones.” In Beelzebub the law of seven gets the name Heptaparaparshinokh, while components of the fundamental “octave” get more baffling nomenclature.

These tricks seem calculated to dissuade the casual reader. I was not a casual reader.  I read Beelzebub three times closely, which I believe was three times more than Gulliver. As I have pointed out, Gulliver taught Gurdjieff from a set of books written by a student of a student of Gurdjieff, namely Maurice Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. As a commenter to that post noted, real Gurdjieff groups do not read Nicoll or even Ouspensky. They read Gurdjieff.

And why not? I imagine that these “real” groups read Gurdjieff for the same reason why today I follow the Catholic Church and not some Protestant offshoot. We all want—or should want—to be as close to the source as possible, shouldn’t we?

As my further writings will tell, I became disenchanted not only with Gulliver but also with the Gurdjieff teaching—for different reasons. Gulliver was a tormented man who, though brilliant and creative, abused his students sexually and otherwise. I do not have personal experience of Gurdjieff the man on any of those counts. Instead, I became disenchanted with the Gurdjieff system when I realized that it was useful but unnecessary. Unnecessary may be too tepid a word, but we’ll come to that more fully in its place.

Still, this cannot be denied: For about fifteen years, from 1971 when Gulliver began teaching me about Gurdjieff until the mid-1980s when I realized that Gurdjieff would not be my path to “the higher,” I followed The Work, and I followed it religiously. No one in the groups I participated in studied Gurdjieff’s “table of hydrogens” or “three-story factory” more assiduously. I’m sure few woke up each day with the same determination to put Gurdjieff’s efforts into practice, with exercises in self-observation and external considering. My journals from those years attest to the seriousness with which I took all of it.

Was I success at these studies and practices? Probably not. Yet even today, in quiet moments before the Tabernacle or a crucifix, I find that my inner calm and consciousness are perhaps sometimes just a bit greater—my ability to pray perhaps enhanced—by my years in The Work.

I must acknowledge that gift, and now I have done so.

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