The Gurdjieff Work Today
by Jacob Needleman
The Gurdjieff Foundation
Before his death in 1949, Gurdjieff entrusted the task of transmitting the teaching to his chief pupil, Jeanne de Salzmann, and a small circle of other pupils in France, England and America who acknowledged her leadership. Under her guidance, the first centers of the Work were established in Paris, London, New York and Caracas. Over the past half-century other centers have radiated from them to major cities of the Western world. Most of the groups maintain close correspondence with the principal centers and most have developed under the personal guidance of one or two of the first-generation pupils of Gurdjieff. The general articulation of all these groups is a cooperative one, rather than one based on strictly sanctioned jurisdictional control. There are also groups which no longer maintain close correspondence with the main body of pupils and operate independently. And there are numerous other organizations led by individuals who claim no historical lineage with either Gurdjieff or his direct pupils.
In what follows we limit ourselves to the teaching as it has been studied and transmitted by groups that may be historically designated as representing the direct Gurdjieff lineage. These groups now exist in each specific location under the name of “The Gurdjieff Foundation,” or, in The United Kingdom, “The Gurdjieff Society.”
A central focus of the Gurdjieff teaching is the awakening to consciousness and the creation of proper communal and psychological conditions that can support this multi-leveled process. For this, a preparatory work is necessary, as stated by Jeanne de Salzmann: “According to Gurdjieff, the truth can be approached only if all the parts which make the human being, the thought, the feeling, and the body, are touched with the same force in a particular way appropriate to each of them—failing which, development will inevitably be one-sided and sooner or later come to a stop. In the absence of an effective understanding of this principle, all work on oneself is certain to deviate from the aim. The essential conditions will be wrongly understood and one will see a mechanical repetition of the forms of effort which never surpass a quite ordinary level.”
Gurdjieff gave the name of “self-remembering” to the central state of conscious attention in which the higher force that is available within the human structure makes contact with the functions of thought, feeling and body. The individual “remembers,” as it were, who and what he really is and is meant to be, over and above his ordinary sense of identity. This conscious attention is not a function of the mind but is the active conscious force which all our functions of thought, feeling and movement can begin to obey as the “inner master.”
Consistent with the knowledge behind many contemplative traditions of the world, the practice of the Gurdjieff work places chief emphasis on preparing our inner world to receive this higher attention, which can open us to an inconceivably finer energy of love and understanding.
The Gurdjieff work remains above all essentially an oral tradition, transmitted under specially created conditions from person to person, continually unfolding, without fixed doctrinal beliefs or external rites, as a way toward freeing humanity from the waking sleep that holds us in a kind of hypnotic illusion. The moving life of the tradition thus supports the individual search and helps to overcome the seemingly universal impulse of resistance or inertia: the tendency toward attachment, and the gradual fixing on partial aspects, institutionalized forms, dogmatic doctrines and a habitual reliance on the known rather than facing and entering the unknown. According to the Gurdjieff teaching, the forms exist only to help discover, incarnate, and elaborate a formless energy of awakening, and without this understanding the forms of the teaching become an end in themselves and lose their meaning.
Gurdjieff taught that alone an individual can do nothing.
In group meetings students regularly come together to participate in a collective atmosphere that is meant to function as a principal means for the transformation of the individual state of consciousness. Although, with the help of more advanced pupils, questions are shared and responded to in words, the fundamental support of the group is directed to the individual work of facing oneself and consciously recognizing one’s own inner lack, until the appearance of a new quality of energy is possible. The more experienced pupils, helping the group as part of their own search, strive to be sensitive not so much to the content of the exchange, but to the process of the developing energy and the mutual teaching that can take place under its influence. In their turn, more advanced pupils just as urgently need to work in groups, and in this way a redefinition of the conventional image of the “leader” is inevitable. At each level of inner work, what has been understood needs to be individually and collectively re-examined and verified in the movement of a dynamic, living esoteric school.
The dances and movements which Gurdjieff taught were partially a result of his research in the monasteries and schools of Asia, and are of a nature that seems unique in the modern Western world. In certain respects, they are comparable to sacred dances in traditional religious systems (for example, the ’Cham dances of Tibetan Buddhism or the dervish dances of the Sufis). Like them, the Gurdjieff Movements are based on the view that a series of specific postures, gestures, and movements, supported by an intentional use of melody and rhythm and an essential element of right individual effort, can help to evoke an inner condition which is closer to a more conscious existence, or a state of unity, which can allow an opening to the conscious energy of the Self. The Movements are now regularly given at major centers of the work by carefully prepared pupils who emphasize the need for exactitude and a special quality of feeling, without which the Movements cannot provide the help for which they were brought.
The practice of sitting is difficult to characterize apart from observing that, in accordance with the overall aim of the work, it is not a “form” in and for itself, but is fundamentally a preparation for the inner search within the midst of life. With or without spoken guidance, the aim is ultimately to help individuals search for an embodied presence that sustains the attempt to enter more deeply into an awareness of all the opposing forces constantly moving within the body. Madame de Salzmann gave this special work to her older pupils in the way Gurdjieff had given it at the Prieuré. Later, in the l960s, when groups had become more advanced, she gradually introduced it more broadly.
Work in life: To be able to work in life in the full sense would be considered a very high achievement. The struggle to be “present” in everyday life constitutes a major aspect of Gurdjieff’s teaching, a struggle which leads to a full engagement in the duties and rewards of human life, now and here. In this context, Gurdjieff created conditions to help his pupils experience the fundamental practice of self-observation. Through such experience, a man or woman can begin to come into contact with an ever-deepening sense of inner need which allows an opening to a powerful conscious influence within oneself. According to Gurdjieff, without a relationship to this more central aspect of oneself, everyday life is bound to be an existential prison, in which the individual is held captive, not so much by the so-called forces of modernity, as by the parts of the self which cannot help but react automatically to the influences of the world. The help offered by the special conditions of the work is therefore understood not as replacing our life in the world, but as enabling us, in the course of time, to live life with authentic understanding and full participation.
Briefly, the movement toward awakening which is meant to be supported by the ideas and these forms of practice becomes in fact an organic process in life and movement, and for that reason, dogmatic approaches will inevitably fail. The process of awakening requires not only an understanding of the constituent forces and laws which govern man’s psyche and actions, but also a deep sensitivity and appreciation of individual subjective needs and conditions. In other words, for an effective guidance, the principle of relativity must be recognized in the transmission of the teaching: individuals must be approached according to their respective levels of development and experience. Gurdjieff might have stressed one view to a student at a certain level of understanding and quite another view when that student had reached another level. This might give the appearance of contradiction, but in fact it was consistent in applying only those aspects of the whole teaching truly necessary at a given moment. The same principle applies to the ideas, some of which seemed more accessible at one period while others still remained to be revealed in the unfolding life of the teaching.
For example, the work of “self-observation” acquires a completely new meaning as the developing attention lets go of its effort, joining and willingly submitting to a higher conscious seeing. The action that might take place in this condition—in the quiet of meditation or even in outer action—reflects the simultaneous dual nature of both an impersonal consciousness and a personal attention which has a new capacity to manifest and act in the world. The qualities of both these aspects of consciousness and attention are quite unknown to the ordinary mind. In this new relationship of individual attention and a higher impersonal consciousness, a man or woman can become a vessel, serving another energy which can act through the individual, an energy which at the same time transforms the materiality of the body at the cellular level. This understanding of inner work introduced by Jeanne de Salzmann can be found today in many of the Gurdjieff Foundation groups worldwide.