Different dates are given for the birth of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff but it appears to be around 1870; however we do know he died in 1949, albeit in somewhat mysterious circumstances. An autopsy indicated that for him to have lived so long was a medical impossibility, as most of his internal organs had failed to function properly some time before.
Born in Armenia, he travelled widely in his early years, particularly visiting monasteries of several persuasions across central Asia and Tibet. He settled in Russia for a time, before moving to France in 1922 to establish the ‘Institute for the Harmonies Development of Man’ at Fontainebleu.
P.D. Ouspensky (1878-1947) was a disciple and vigorous promoter of Gurdjieff. It is doubtful if he produced anything original himself, but he had a kind of ‘PR’ position, lecturing and writing on Gurdjieff’s behalf.
Ouspensky’s book, The Fourth Way, purported to contain a way of ‘enlightenment’ suitable for people living in the Western World. The three traditional ways were devotional, magical and ascetic ways; the fourth way was meditative. Although some would deny it, his teaching bears strong resemblance to what we know today as the New Age movement, although the name was not in use at the time.
One web site describes the idea of the Fourth Way in the following terms:>
George Gurdjieff and Peter Ouspensky introduced the powerful ideas of the Fourth Way to those seeking to know the truth about man’s existence on earth. As Gurdjieff explained, “You do not realize your own situation. You are in prison. All you can wish for, if you are a sensible man, is to escape. But how? No one can escape from prison without the help of those who have escaped before. An organization is necessary.”
Gurdjieff said that the Fourth Way does not require a person to give up the usual conditions of life; indeed, these conditions are ideal for self-observation. Unlike the other three ways of enlightenment (the way of the Fakir, the way of the Monk, the way of the Yogi), the Fourth Way, as Gurdjieff describes, must be found. When you find a Fourth Way school that is led by one who has broken the chains of sleep and attained a higher level of consciousness, you are instructed to reach the full potential of your human evolutionary possibilities. You are taught to free yourself from the sleep-induced power of your stimulus-response machine. You are taught to remember yourself. You are taught to awaken.
Ouspensky eventually left Gurdjieff’s organisation, but the two maintained amicable contact. His philosophy, set out in numerous books, of which Tertium Organum is reckoned the most representative, deals largely with higher dimensions and man’s perception of them.
One facilitator for a Gurdjieff group says that,
PD Ouspensky was unable to become what Gurdjieff wanted of him – that is, to transmit the teaching as given by Gurdjieff. Instead he devised his own system. Nevertheless, his system is very useful in helping people to see more clearly what they need in terms of Personal Evolution.
Gurdjieff’s teaching, usually classified under ‘occult’ headings, was expressed in his own invented terminology and appears to have been synthesised from many sources, including Buddhism and the Kabbalah. However, others would say that parts of the teaching had been preserved by various schools through the ages, and that Gurdjieff spent considerable time reconstructing the beliefs.
He taught that man in his ordinary state is ‘asleep’ and acts purely mechanically, according to ingrained habits. Only momentary flashes of insight give any idea of proper life.
He taught that there were three ‘brains’ governing activity and consciousness, which normally acted in an uncoordinated way, and that inherent abilities and capacities would begin operating as the three centres began operating in harmony and equilibrium.
Along with this, he taught that ordinary man has neither a soul nor a true will, both of which must be developed by ‘conscious labours and intentional suffering.’This was basically cultivated, apart from the circumstances of life, by a strenuous practice of exercises, intended to develop self-awareness and thus release untapped reserves of physical and mental energy. One such physical exercise was a series of complicated dance movements requiring intense concentration. Although again some would deny that they need concentration at all but simply require the student to “be present to himself”. You must use all your senses and not just your head.
His teaching should be viewed as one of the numerous attempts to make eastern mysticism acceptable in the West, and is not unlike Theosophy, in intent.
Reincarnation played a part, although Gurdjieff put a twist in to give more of a sense of urgency. He asserted that once the seeker began their spiritual quest, only a limited number of lifetimes – not specified – were ordained to ‘get it right’. If they didn’t, a gloomier fate would await them, than as if the quest had never begun! It appears that Gurdjieff threw this in to try to remove complacency – it certainly aroused consternation in the discussion subsequently recorded!
Although contemporaries, there is no known connection between Gurdjieff and Hubbard and Steiner, yet there are are some similarities in their teachings.
Versions of his system are taught by various organisations in Europe and America, largely established by either Gurdjieff or Ouspensky. Gurdjieff’s principal written work was All and Everything, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. It is probable that Gurdjieff’s teaching would seem too complex and intellectually oriented for most of today’s New Age Movement. Either it will remain a very marginal part or else bring itself up-to-date by the time honoured means of ignoring unwanted elements!