Taking Leave of Some Teachers

The last name of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a household word in my father’s family, along with that of Gurdjieff’s major disciple, Peter Demianovich Ouspensky. I remember hearing these two strange sounding names from the mid-1940s when I was around age seven. Ouspensky died in 1947 and Gurdjieff in 1949, but their teachings remain important to a significant number of seekers and much has been written by their students, and students of these students, about them, especially Gurdjieff.

During my twenties, when I was hungry for glimpses of deeper structure and meaning in life, I began reading Gurdjieff the philosopher and psychologist, and Ouspensky the cosmologist and major explainer of Gurdjieff. I may not have pursued these writings so early and diligently had not their names been imprinted in me. I later read other explainers and interpreters of both these men because their writing is dense and, in Gurdjieff’s case, his written English is almost impenetrable to most readers.

Left, P.D. Ouspensky; right, G.I. Gurdjieff

Left, P.D. Ouspensky; right, G.I. Gurdjieff

By the time I was in my forties I had collected a large number of books about Gurdjieff and “the work,” as his legacy is known to his students, and a few by Ouspensky who was less prolific and had less of a following. I also had, and still have some, books by Rafael Lefort, Olga Arkadievna de Hartmann, Kathleen Speeth, John G. Bennett and Robert de Ropp which are, at least in part, pertinent to “the work”. And, to make even more clear what these two teachers taught I have their biographies by Colin W. Wilson.

In recent weeks I have been rereading books I have had with me for many years, some of which I will now give away, having now read them a sufficient number of times. This is how I am ‘taking leave’ of these teachers.

The previous article in this journal was written as a result of such a rereading. More recently I have reread Making a Soul by John G. Bennett, adapted from a series of lectures, including extensive responses to questions from the audience, in London, 1954, expounding upon critical elements of the writing and teaching of Gurdjieff.

Sitting in the quiet early morning of a Swedish late spring, with the sun’s light about to stream into my window at 4:15 AM, I ask myself what I have learned from Gurdjieff and all his interpreters. The one thing I will remember is that we are, most of us, most of the time ‘asleep.’ The subtitle of Colin Wilson’s biography of Gurdjieff is The War Against Sleep. Another thing I will remember is that Gurdjieff and his followers asked good questions about the nature of man and his place in the universe. Finally, I am grateful for his having introduced me to ways of thinking and being in other parts of the world.

What I cannot now accept in his teachings is the metaphor of man as a machine. He and Ouspensky and all who followed them are steeped in the atmosphere of science and mathematics which bloomed in the first half of the 20th Century. The appeal to logic, reason and science in all these writings, no matter how much there may be an acknowledgment of a force ‘higher’ than man, is, in my view, like trying to put a previously living organism back to together after having dissected it.

John G. Bennett

John G. Bennett

Also, in Bennett’s Making of a Soul, he makes such, to me, unacceptable statements as “…the fundamental principle of all science, which is the continuity and self-consistency of the natural order”, and “…everything in the universe is built upon one common pattern.” I have an aversion to the use of the noun ‘science’ as if it were an independent agent causing things to happen or containing things that we try to discover. There is a scientific method that enables us to learn things about the universe and to make useful tools with this knowledge, but which is provisional and according to current theories, subject to revision.

Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Bennett, de Ropp and others often present linear and planar diagrams in the manner of organizational charts and systems analyses to buttress their arguments of how man and the rest of the universe are constructed and how they relate to each other. These are inevitably hierarchical in nature, where Man is higher than all other living things on earth and subordinate to unseen and variously named forces higher than him.

Bennett, however, asks a critical question: “Who am I that can say ‘my body?'” This is precisely a question asked by others whose perceptions are influenced by Zen Buddhism and by those who perceive man as part of a vibrant and dynamic whole, not separate, not ‘outside’ of himself looking at himself.

In addition to intellectual exercises, Gurdjieff and Bennett promoted music and dance as practiced by dervishes (Sufi Muslims) as a way to achieve certain understandings, as in the unity of The Whole. One can see an example of this in a film based on the book by Gurdjieff with the same title, Meetings With Remarkable Men. In the film, Bennett is briefly in a scene where acolytes in a British school for Gurdjieffian ways are dancing in presumed Sufi style. They array themselves around a diagram painted on the floor, The Enneagram.

The Enneagram is part of an ancient method of describing personality types, not dissimilar from the modern Myers-Briggs Type Indicator, based in Jungian psychology and widely used in organizations for team building and by others for self- and mutual understanding. Some scholars have asserted a relationship between the two methods.

Although fascinating and instructive, the adoption by Gurdjieff, then by others, of pieces of other cultures in The Caucasus, where Gurdjieff was born, and from parts of Western Asia such as Sufi dancing and The Enneagram, makes a kind of stew that requires endless interpretation for understanding.

I can now release many of the books in this realm of inquiry for others to read. I will keep some books because of their literary and historical value, and  to remind me of these former teachers who have now become friends with whom I have some respectful differences of opinion.

Books to be released:

I urge the reader to read the reviews underneath the links to these books for even more, and very interesting commentary.

As I retrieved and set aside these books for their proper distribution beyond my library, I came across this bookmark of unknown date, so I don’t know if the telephone numbers are current.

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
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15 Responses to Taking Leave of Some Teachers

  1. Allan says:

    Gurdjieff-Ouspensky Centers were a front for the Fellowship of Friends which is the cult of Robert Earl Burton. He is a being of such high attainment that if you are one of his followers and you have an attractive, barely legal, teenage son willing to pleasure such an exalted being, you may be brought into Burton’s inner circle. The entire legitimate Gurdjieffian community including senior members from all of the major lineage groups have been denouncing this organization for years. It also figures prominently on various cult-watch websites. Fortunately ever since the rise of the internet where Burton’s behaviours have been catalogued his organization has had a real marketing problem.

    As to man being a machine. It is so hard to grasp of the subtleties of the Gurdjieffian cosmology, particularly as worked out by JG Bennett.

    Mr. Gurdjieff said that there were five levels of consciousness. This is not true because he also told Bennett there are twelve. The five Mr. Gurdjieff was talking about were those attainable by man. In order they are: sleep, waking sleep, personal consciousness, objective consciousness and cosmic consciousness. And because the final state is attainable it takes us beyond the realm of man, it is not even worth talking about.

    Now this of course, also does not mean that there are four levels of man, but three (if you have attempted to confront the Gurdjieff Teachings you are hopefully smiling at the 5 being 12 but becoming 4 and then 3 because this system can be so damn confusing).

    Basically we are cosmic apparatuses designed for the transformation of energies. An apple tree takes the energy contained in the soil and separates the lower from the higher, making something more refined. We can eat the more refined energy produced by the apple tree and then further transform some of the energy in the apple (both up and down).

    Here man can be defined as being “centred” in one of three levels, depending on the energy he is capable of transforming. According to the Gurdjieffian cosmology by far the vast majority, possibly as high as 99% are centred at the level where they are transforming a level of energy defined as “hydrogen 48”. This is a habitual and mechanical energy and you are right, saying we are machines is using a 20th century metaphor (Bennett preferred “automatons”).

    Now what is less well known is that even if you live in a state of “waking sleep” and operate more as a machine than a man, at whatever level you are centred, you have immediate access to the level above and below. This means that even though 99% of humanity is centred in the state of waking sleep where they are transforming hydrogen 48, they are all easily able to transform “hydrogen 24” and experience the state of personal consciousness. They are just unable to maintain it because that requires us to free a lot of energy that has become trapped in ourselves (by “working on ourselves”). And here it is important to realize that in that moment we rise into a state of personal consciousness, we are no longer transforming a habitual and automatic and mechanical level of energy. We are no longer machines and in that moment we become a “man” (“man in quotation marks” to use mr. Gurdjieff’s phrase).

    And another name for personal consciousness… well there are many. Though one of my favourites is “sati” — the word the Buddha used — and one of my least favourites, is the way Buddhists have translated this word into English: Mindfulness. Sati means ‘focused attention’, so anytime you focus your attention in any way that makes you Mindful, you are no longer a machine because you are transforming a higher energy.

    Of course, as a Gurdjieffian, I believe that the most important act of Mindfulness is “self-sensing” or the “sensation of self”. Sensing my body from the bottom of my feet to the top of my head. Sensing my body breathing. Sensing my organic body as one whole.


  2. Kabir says:

    Fun read(s)… but the problem I have with self-remembering is WHO!? Who is it that is doing the remembering and WHO is it that is being remembered!? Surely they are one in the same persona!? It is placing students (as Zen does) into a psychological double bind. One can try and try and try to “remember oneself” and never get any closer to doing so b/c it cannot be done! You cannot separate yourself from yourself in order to see yourself as you are. B/c WHO is doing the remembering? The contradiction is implied within the exercise own name! Self-rememberence. WHO? WHEN!? Surely this is misguided! Until it becomes clear that one CANNOT remember oneself through sheer “will” (I believe this is what they mean when calling man-machines) This is b/c free will does not exist to one who defines oneself as a separate individual. Free will only exists if one defines/knows oneself as a part of the whole (Absolute,God, Universe, w/e) Otherwise causality reigns supreme b/c we are merely puppets of an external environment, until the two are united by seeing through the inherent contradiction. You cannot remember yourself b/c you do not exist as you think you do (as a separate being, living in an external world).


    • Ron Pavellas says:

      Thanks for the read and comment, Kabir. I have no argument with your assertions. As for Gurdjieff, his audience, at least in his “Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man” at Fontainebleau in France, I perceive as mostly people who were of the leisure class, with nothing important to do. He seems to have been trying to get them in touch with the ‘real world’ by Paying Attention (self-remembering) and engaging in ‘Intentional Suffering.’ I, too, perceive the former was a variation on the concept of Koan. Mostly he was trying to get them to ‘Wake Up.’ (Colin Wilson’s biography of Gurdjieff is entitled “The War Against Sleep.”)


  3. Pingback: Colin Wilson, “The Outsider” | The Pavellas Perspective

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