Gurdjieff, G. I.

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GURDJIEFF, G. I. Georgii Ivanovich Gurdzhiv (18661949) was a spiritual teacher of esoteric knowledge who claimed to have discovered specific methods for developing the human consciousness toward a more awakened state. Gurdjieff was born of a Greek father and Armenian mother in Alexandropol in the Cappadocian Greek quarter on the Russian side of the Russian-Finnish border. The date of his birth is disputed to be as much as eleven years later, due perhaps to a mistake on his passport. Gurdjieff himself maintained that he was born in 1866, a date that is corroborated by a number of sources.

The gifted boy, who came to use the Russian name Gurdjieff, was carefully schooled for a career in either the Orthodox priesthood or in medicine. However, even as a teenager he was convinced of the existence of perennial wisdom and secret knowledge that held the answers to life's ultimate questions. For this reason, Gurdjieff left the academic world and engaged in a quest that took him to Central Asia, including upper Tibet, and the Middle East. Some of the significant events of this journey are recorded in Meetings with Remarkable Men (begun in 1927 and revised over the years; first published in 1963), which British director Peter Brook made into a movie in 1979.

In 1912 Gurdjieff took up residence in Moscow and attracted a circle of students there and in Saint Petersburg. Having previously read the Tertium Organum published in Russian in 1911 (1920 in English) by P. D. Ouspensky (18781947), Gurdjieff accepted Ouspensky as a pupil in 1915. The musician and composer Thomas de Hartmann (18851956) and his wife Olga also joined the circle. To avoid the difficulties of life during the Bolshevik Revolution, Gurdjieff led his followers to the Caucasus and stayed in Tbilisi, Georgia. There in 1919, he accepted the artist Alexandre de Salzmann (18741934) and his wife Jeanne as disciples. In collaboration with de Hartmann, Gurdjieff composed music based on an inversion of the Greek diatonic Dorian mode (EDCBAGFE) found in Plato's Timaeus. Working with his gifted pupils, Gurdjieff also choreographed 250 ensemble movements of Sacred Dances, which illustrated his spiritual teachings and were performed in public. He then traveled to Constantinople and to London, where the prominent editor A. R. Orage (18731934) joined his group.

Finally settling in France, Gurdjieff opened the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Prieuré des Basses Loges at Fontainebleau-Avon in 1922. There he attracted international pupils, including the dying author Katherine Mansfield (18881923) from New Zealand. In 1924 he toured with a group of dancer-disciples that performed Sacred Dances in New York, Chicago, Boston, and Philadelphia. While in the United States he attracted other prominent students, including the editor and writer Jane Heap (18871964).

After surviving a near fatal auto accident in 1924 and the trauma of his wife's death in 1926, Gurdjieff continued to teach in Prieuré until financial problems forced its closure in 1933. After another visit to the United States, he settled permanently in Paris. There he constituted an exclusively lesbian group, including the author of The Nun's Story (1956), Kathryn Hulme (19001981). In 1930 René Daumal (19081944) and his wife Vera joined Gurdjieff's other Parisian circle. Gurdjieff remained in Paris during the Nazi occupation. His followers helped hide Jewish members of their group. He continued to teach, and died in 1949 in Neuilly, France.

Gurdjieff remains a mysterious and controversial figure even into the twenty-first century. He has been called everything from a charlatan to a master of wisdom. Those who knew him well considered him to be a profound seeker after truth, which included the meaning in life, the origins and reasons for human existence, and the potentiality for humans to expand their consciousness. In order to achieve these ends, Gurdjieff was willing to break the rules of custom, to live an unconventional life, and to take great risks in travel and spiritual practice.

The central idea in Gurdjieff's thought is that human consciousness can be awakened to a much greater degree than most people experience. In fact, there is a "Real I" inside all people, which can be uncovered, but only by those who are devoted to finding this divine essence in themselves. His monumental work, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson (1949), is an allegory of a being in a spaceship who observes the "hell" of life on earth and the misery of the "three-brained beings" who inhabit the planet. Humans are composed of ordinary waking consciousness, which is fictitious; the subconscious, which is closer to reality; and the state of transformation or higher consciousness, which religions might call "spirit" (pneuma, buddhi, or ātman). Beings who live only by the perceptions of waking consciousness are disrespectfully called "slugs" by Beelzebub's grandson, a truth seeker.

Methods for attaining the Real I included meditation at dawn and dusk, meditation on sacred music, and intense self-observation to assess one's automatic, as opposed to truly conscious, actions. The teachers Gurdjieff encountered in Russia and in the Middle and Far East were described as being on the verge of attaining or having attained this higher consciousness. At the end of Meetings with Remarkable Men, having discovered a sacred place, Gurdjieff wrote that "among the adepts of this monastery were former Christians, Mohammadens, Buddhists, Lamaists, and even one Shamanist. All were united by God the Truth" (p. 239).

In spite of his emphasis on experience, Gurdjieff's contribution was concerned with cosmology, metaphysics, and evolution. For example, Beelzebub teaches his grandson that all beings were "Rays of Creation" from the "Common Father Endlessness Himself" (one of the many names for the Absolute [God]). According to Gurdjieff, Charles Darwin (18091882) had explained little about human evolution because he did not account for the human inner nature as divine emanations. Human beings on the "minor planet earth" have lost touch with their origins and reasons for existence due to mindlessly following conventional religions and political leaders. Humans are actually governed by cosmic laws, which are a part of their psychic makeup. Tragically, humans are caught up in materialism, external success, and the unattainable goal of happiness. They are hopelessly lost unless they can return to the Real I. The final part of the All and Everything series, Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am" (1950) deals with aspects of this teaching that are accessible only to his most devoted students. Ouspensky, in his record of Gurdjieff's talks, In Search of the Miraculous (1949), explains these ideas further. In 1924 Gurdjieff and Ouspensky broke off their association in spite of their similar teachings.

Gurdjieff's work was carried on by his pupil, Jeanne de Salzmann (18891990), who organized the Gurdjieff Foundation in 1953 in New York. The foundation dispenses the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky in London, Paris, San Francisco, and centers all over the world. The quarterly Gurdjieff International Review publishes essays and commentary about Gurdjieff and his teachings.

See Also

Ouspensky, P. D.


Works by Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff, G. I. All and Everything. New York, 1950. Original publication that includes Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am."

Gurdjieff, G. I. Herald of the Coming Good. Paris, 1933; reprint, New York, 1970. Gurdjieff discusses the great future for the human race during the dark days prior to World War II.

Gurdjieff. G. I. Meetings with Remarkable Men. New York, 1974. An autobiographical account of Gurdjieff's travels and encounters with people who attained spiritual realizations on the path.

Gurdjieff, G. I. Views from the Real World: Early Talks in Moscow, Essentuki, Tifli, Berlin, London, Paris, New York, and Chicago as Recollected by His Pupils. New York, 1975. A discussion by Gurdjieff regarding what it would be like to view things as they really are from an objective enlightened state.

Gurdjieff, G. I. Life Is Real Only Then, When "I Am." New York, 1982. Gurdjieff's friendly advice for getting in contact with the real "other being" beyond the instinctive, emotional, and thinking person.

Gurdjieff, G. I. Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. New York, 1999. A allegory of the problems and potential of the human race as seen by a great being from outer space.

Works from Sources Close to Gurdjieff

Anderson, Margaret. The Unknowable Gurdjieff. New York, 1962. A clearly written work by an intimate of his circle, which included Jane Heap and Kathryn Hulme, discussing the difficulties of understanding Gurdjieff and his doctrines.

Bennett, J. G. Gurdjieff: Making a New World. New York, 1973. A discussion of Gurdjieff's life and teaching and a portrait of him as a man by one of his associates.

Driscoll, J. Walter, and the Gurdjieff Foundation. Gurdjieff: An Annotated Bibliography. New York, 1985. Compiled by Jeanne de Salzmann and others.

Moore, James. Gurdjieff and Mansfield. London, 1980. A portrait of the relationship between Gurdjieff and Katherine Mansfield.

Moore, James. Gurdjieff, the Anatomy of a Myth: A Biography. Dorsett, U.K., 1991. An attempt to reveal and differentiate truths, with good stories about Gurdjieff and his doctrines.

Nicoll, Maurice. Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. London, 19521956; reprint, Boston, 1984. A difficult work setting forth the major ideas that Gurdjieff and Ouspensky held in common on psychology and the spiritual evolution of the human race.

Ouspensky, P. D. In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching. New York, 1949. Ouspensky's notes and records of Gurdjieff's most important teachings and discussions with his pupils.

Pauwels, Louis. Gurdjieff. New York, 1972. A portrait of Gurd-jieff's personal interaction with his groups in Paris, New York, and Fontainebleau. Includes interesting paintings by Felix Labisse and George Rahner Ferro.

Pentland, John. Exchanges Within: Questions from Everyday Life. New York, 1997. Gurdjieff's teaching about life's basic questions and his interaction with his students.

Peters, Fritz. Boyhood with Gurdjieff. New York, 1964. A boy who grew up in Gurdjieff's circle shows him to be "all too human" while retaining a deep reverence for him.

Peters, Fritz. Gurdjieff Remembered. New York, 1965. An intimate of the Gurdjieff circle discusses teachings, arguments, and problems that led to the split between Gurdjieff and Ouspensky.

Speeth, Kathleen Riordan. The Gurdjieff Work. New York, 1989. A clearly written book on Gurdjieff's fundamental ideas and how his "Fourth Way" teachings were diffused in the West, influencing such individuals as the physiologist Moshé Feldenkreis, the painter Georgia O'Keeffe, and many writers.

Walker, Kenneth. The Making of Man. London, 1963. A short, readable book on the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky on cosmic consciousness and cosmic laws.

Webb, James. The Harmonious Circle: The Lives and Work of G. I. Gurdjieff, P. D. Ouspensky, and Their Followers. New York, 1980. A discussion of Gurdjieff's experiments to implement harmony and personal development in his inner circle.

Critical Perspectives

Needleman, Jacob, George Baker, and Bruno de Panaflieu, eds. Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching. New York, 1996. A collection of essays that attempt to objectively evaluate the life and work of Gurdjieff.

Woodson, Jon. To Make a New Race: Gurdjieff, Toomer, and the Harlem Renaissance. Jackson, Miss., 1999. A critical look at Gurdjieff's ideas and an interesting view of his influence on the poet Jean Toomer.

Internet Sources

Gurdjieff International Review. "Selected Excerpts from the Talks and Writings of G. I. Gurdjieff." Available from

Moore, James. "Gurdjieff Chronology." Available from

Needleman, Jacob. "G. I. Gurdjieff and His School." Avail-able from

Judy D. Saltzman (2005)