George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff, who brought an ancient esoteric teaching to the West, was one of the most important spiritual teachers of the 20th century. The impact of his ideas, teaching methods and powerful personality continue to challenge and fascinate seekers of wisdom more than half a century after his death. His teaching, known as ‘the Work’ - which has come to be called the ‘Fourth Way’ - has greatly influenced spiritual seekers throughout the world.
Assessments of Gurdjieff by students, followers, journalists, critics, scholars and fellow spiritual teachers are bewilderingly diverse, ranging from ‘charlatan’ and ‘black magician’ to ‘extraordinary spiritual master’ and even ‘A Messenger from Above.’
Gurdjieff first emerged as a spiritual teacher in 1908 in Tashkent, Turkestan where he attracted a small circle of pupils. His teaching activity from this initial stage until 1912 is largely shrouded in mystery and cannot be independently verified in any way.
Research by John Bennett and biographer James Moore suggests that this period was essentially experimental, as Gurdjieff tested his ideas and teaching methods on a wide spectrum of personality types. Bennett notes that Gurdjieff in his writings claimed to have contacted an esoteric school based in Central Asia to seek permission before entering a more formal phase of teaching, but he considered the evidence on this point inconclusive: “We have no other evidence that Gurdjieff set up his Institute with the authority or at least the approval of a higher school, but he spoke both in Russia and at the Prieuré of schools in Central Asia with which he was in communication and to whom he sent specially prepared pupils.” (1)
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The system of knowledge that Gurdjieff taught has a psychological side and a cosmological side, which form twin halves of a comprehensive whole. Study of the psychological ideas is helpful in understanding the cosmological concepts, and vice versa.
To a certain extent, a thorough grounding in Gurdjieff’s basic psychological ideas is a prerequisite to approaching his complex cosmology. Gurdjieff generally introduced his students to the psychological ideas and the need for personal self-study first, before he dealt with the cosmological principles. Many students of the Work have reported that they found the psychological component easier to understand than the cosmological.
The source of Gurdjieff's teachings has never been conclusively established by either scholars or students of Gurdjieff. However, some have speculated that he contacted and learned from esoteric schools that were custodians of ancient spiritual teachings on the evolution of humanity.
Gurdjieff spoke in general terms about esoteric schools directed by a circle of evolved human beings who have guided the spiritual development of humanity throughout history:
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From the beginning of Gurdjieff’s teaching mission in the West, a number of questions have fueled an ongoing debate about the source of his teachings and practices. Where did he learn his powerful system of psychological and cosmological ideas? What particular spiritual teachings form the foundation of his work? Which teachers inspired and influenced his development?
When asked these questions directly, Gurdjieff seemed reluctant to provide any information of substance, typically answering evasively or in generalities. On one occasion when esotericist Boris Mouravieff asked him about the source of his teaching, he replied: “Maybe I stole it.” (1)
Gurdjieff sometimes spoke to his students of his search for esoteric knowledge and teachings and his eventual discovery of “elements of a forgotten knowledge of being that reconciled the great traditional beliefs. He called it ‘ancient science’ but did not identify its origin, those who discovered and preserved it.” (2) In an interview with scholar Denis Saurat in 1923 he provided some general indications of this search:
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G.I. Gurdjieff has been described as one of the most fascinating and remarkable men of the 20th century. He possessed immense personal magnetism and profound esoteric knowledge of human transformation, and he brought a spiritual teaching of vast scope and power to the Western world. Yet, throughout his life Gurdjieff was an enigma even to his closest students and was widely misunderstood by observers, critics and the public.
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Anthropological research suggests that human beings in virtually every culture in history have ingested chemical substances to alter their consciousness. Certain spiritual traditions celebrate inebriation as a metaphor for conscious transformation. Sufi mystics have spoken of being ‘drunk with the wine of love.’ The Zen tradition has a history of poets and teaching masters who were spirited drinkers of sake. Other spiritual traditions have employed certain ‘power drugs’ and psychedelics in sacred rituals and ceremonies as an integral part of their teaching.
By all reports Gurdjieff was a vigorous, charismatic man with a robust sexual nature, described by biographer James Webb as “a sensual man who enjoyed the pleasures of the bed as much as those of the table.” (1) Gurdjieff's sexual conduct shocked many people in the 1920s and 1930s, especially in conservative America. There were rumours that he had a highly varied sex life and was involved in unusual sexual practices. Some claimed he was a master of exotic Tantric sexual teachings learned in the East. While many of the stories surrounding Gurdjieff and sex were clearly fictitious or based on hearsay, there is a body of information on this subject gleaned from the written accounts of his pupils and research by biographers, scholars and academics that can be considered reasonably reliable.
Gurdjieff held many traditional conservative beliefs and attitudes about sexuality, probably based on his upbringing and cultural conditioning. He strongly condemned masturbation, contraception and homosexuality as affronts to the proper order of nature. At the same time he clearly possessed a sophisticated and nuanced understanding of the role of sexuality in the process of spiritual transformation, and enunciated a complex model of the transmutation of sexual energy to a higher developmental level. Sometimes Gurdjieff created teaching situations which revealed to his students and others the hypnotic power of their conditioned attitudes and unconscious expression of sexuality.
From: Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: A Critical Appraisal
Although more than half a century has elapsed since Gurdjieff's death, his life and teachings continue to challenge and intrigue contemporary seekers of spiritual wisdom. Interest in Gurdjieff's teachings is also growing in the secular world and many of his psychological and cosmological ideas have influenced various “Human Potential” and “New Age” movements and even entered the cultural and academic mainstream. His name and ideas appear in a surprising array of current cultural expressions: