In a conversation in 1915 with P.D. Ouspensky, Gurdjieff explained the theoretical premises to support the use of psychoactive substances such as opium and hashish by students of esoteric schools to aid their inner development:
There are schools which make use of narcotics in the right way. People in these schools take them for self-study; in order to take a look ahead, to know the possibilities better, to see beforehand, ‘in advance,’ what can be attained later on as the result of prolonged work. When a man sees this and is convinced that what he has learned theoretically really exists, he then works consciously, he knows where he is going. Sometimes this is the easiest way of being convinced of the real existence of those possibilities which man often suspects in himself. (1)
Gurdjieff was very aware of the properties and effects of mind-altering substances and used them both personally and with many of his students. However, the use of drugs in a spiritual context is controversial and has been criticized even by some of Gurdjieff’s own pupils such as John Pentland. (2) Gurdjieff’s use of alcohol, both in his personal life and as a teaching method with his students, has also been a source of criticism. And, his elaborate and celebrated meals accompanied by ritual drinking, have been misunderstood by critics who failed to see their spiritual significance.
Gurdjieff possessed an extensive and profound knowledge of psychoactive substances and their effects, much of it clearly based on personal experience. Rafael Lefort, who attempted to trace the sources of Gurdjieff’s knowledge, claims that Gurdjieff studied in Eastern esoteric schools where he was taught “the science of pharmacy and pharmacology, how to plant and use plants of importance, how to extract their essences and how to use these essences.” (3)
References to the use and properties of alcohol, cocaine, hashish and opium appear throughout Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. One of Gurdjieff’s companions in his semi-autobiographical Meetings with Remarkable Men is the character Soloviev, said to be “an authority on what is called eastern medicine in general, and on Tibetan medicine in particular, and he was also the world’s greatest specialist in the knowledge of the action of opium and hashish on the psyche and organism of man.” (4)
James Webb, a biographer of Gurdjieff, speculates that Soloviev “probably never existed” and hints that his character may have been an oblique reference to Gurdjieff himself. Webb also notes that Gurdjieff was contemptuous of Western medicine and claimed that only three drugs from the whole Western pharmacopeia were useful – opium, castor oil and an unidentified substance extracted from a certain tree.
Gurdjieff’s liberal use of caffeine, tobacco and alcohol throughout his long teaching career has been documented by biographers, journalists and students. Coffee and cigarettes were a daily fixture in Gurdjieff’s life and were effectively employed to energize his writing pursuits during the 1920s and 1930s.
Gurdjieff’s drinking was one of the most discussed and controversial aspects of his life. There is little mention of alcohol in the Russian phase of his teaching and certainly no suspicion of alcohol abuse. Ouspensky notes that at times Gurdjieff “liked to arrange big dinners, buying a quantity of wine and food of which however he often ate or drank practically nothing.” (5) However, following his serious automobile accident in 1924 there seems to have been a dramatic change in his drinking habits. In a conversation with student Jean Toomer he revealed some of the reasons for his heavy use of drugs and alcohol in the years following 1924:
He then told me that following his motor accident he had been compelled to produce energy artificially. To this end, during the few following years, he had consumed enough drink to have killed ten men and, in addition, forty pounds of opium. To my question, “Did you know in advance what you were doing, or was it an experiment attended by grave risk?” he replied, “It was necessary to create energy artificially, my condition and my means and aims were such. I knew it, yet it was also an experiment and a risk.” (6)
Gurdjieff’s consumption of spirits clearly played an important role in the dissemination of his teachings and interactions with students. He reportedly could drink very large amounts of alcohol without showing obvious signs of inebriation. According to A.R. Orage: “Gurdjieff, who had an unusual capacity for drink, made a careful distinction between ordinary drinking and conscious drinking which could free the ‘I’ to think, feel, talk and act; that is, to expose ‘essence’.” (7)
That Gurdjieff was a heavy drinker for much of his life is indisputable. Whether or not he was an alcoholic, as esoteric teacher Oscar Ichazo and others suggest, is open to question. Although Gurdjieff did show some of the signs suggestive of alcoholism, such a daily drinking, drinking early in the day, and driving after drinking, he was clearly not impaired in any way that perceptibly prevented him from functioning at a very high level in all aspects of his life. The official medical cause of his death was cirrhosis of the liver and liver cancer.
(1 ) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), pp. 8-9.
(2) John Pentland, who was appointed by Gurdjieff to head the Work in America following his death, warned of the dangers of using drugs as a method of spiritual development in William Patterson Eating the “I” (San Anselmo, California: Arete Communications, 1992, p. 77):
Lord Pentland had talked about how drugs weaken the will, burn up the fine energies of the body, create imagination in the higher emotional center, and keep one from doing the work. Sometime, though, he said, they could show what the next step would be. “But one has to pay for it.”
(3) Rafael Lefort The Teachers of Gurdjieff (London: Victor Gollancz, 1973), p. 78.
(4) G.I. Gurdjieff Meetings with Remarkable Men (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 134
(5) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 33.
(6) William Patterson “Gurdjieff & Money”
(7) Paul Beekman Taylor Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (York Beach, Maine: Weiser Books, 2001), p. 147.
(8) P.D. Ouspensky In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1949), p. 162.
(9) John Bennett Gurdjieff: Making a New World (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), p. 232.
(10) William Patterson Voices in the Dark (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 2000), p. 71.
(11) Kenneth Walker The Making of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), p. 114.
(12) Trungpa even makes an allusion to Gurdjieff in describing the nature of conscious drinking in The Heart of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1991, p. 188):
Mr. Gurdjieff, a spiritual teacher who taught in Europe, spoke of the virtues of ‘conscious drinking’ and insisted that his students do conscious drinking together.
Conscious drinking is a real and obvious demonstration of mind over matter. It allows us to relate to the various stages of intoxication: we experience our expectations, the almost devilish delight when the effect begins to be felt, and the final breakdown into frivolity in which habitual boundaries begin to dissolve.
(13) Chögyam Trungpa The Heart of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1991), p. 189.
(14) James Moore Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth (Rockport, Massachusetts: Element Books, 1991), pp. 353-355.
(15) William Patterson Ladies of the Rope (Fairfax, California: Arete Communications, 1999), pp. 259-260.
(16) Kenneth Walker, who did not usually drink, provides a vivid portrait of his personal experience consuming alcohol during the Toast of the Idiots ritual in The Making of Man (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963, pp. 121-122):
The vodka was terribly powerful and soon my inner life and the outer room were engaged in unpleasant movements. I was forced to remind myself from time to time of where I was, and of what I was doing . . . here I was not allowed to go to sleep, but had to stay awake and to cling on to the one remaining point of steadiness which remained within me . . . At long last the toasts came to an end and coffee cups and packets of cigarettes appeared on the table. I felt much as a shipwrecked sailor must feel when, after being buffeted about in a turbulent sea and all but drowned, he suddenly discovers that he is still alive and within sight of land.
(17) P.D. Ouspensky describes in In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching (New York: Harcourt, Brace & world, 1949, pp. 181-198) the complex process whereby the three foods enter the human organism (called the ‘three-story factory’) and are transformed into finer substances through the law of octaves.
(18) Jasmin and Dushka Howarth It’s Up To Ourselves (New York: Gurdjieff Heritage Society, 2008), pp. 245-246.
(19) Jasmin and Dushka Howarth It’s Up To Ourselves (New York: Gurdjieff Heritage Society, 2008), p. 245.
(20) Thomas and Olga de Hartmann Our Life with Mr. Gurdjieff (London: Arkana, 1992), p. 46.
(21) Jasmin and Dushka Howarth It’s Up To Ourselves (New York: Gurdjieff Heritage Society, 2008), p. 246.
(22) Kenneth Walker Venture with Ideas (New York: Samuel Weiser, 1972), pp. 145-146.
(23) Jasmin and Dushka Howarth It’s Up To Ourselves (New York: Gurdjieff Heritage Society, 2008), p. 252.
(24) Jasmin and Dushka Howarth It’s Up To Ourselves (New York: Gurdjieff Heritage Society, 2008), p. 450.
(25) Paul Beekman Taylor Gurdjieff’s America (Lighthouse Editions, 2004), pp. 202-203.
(26) William Welch What Happened in Between (New York: George Braziller, 1972), p. 124.
(27) In some spiritual communities substance abuse has led to public scandals, disgrace and disillusion. In some cases, where the teacher was alcoholic and encouraged drinking, many students followed suit. With some teachers, addiction to alcohol or drugs is hidden, with others it is public and open. Clandestine alcohol and drug addiction is frequently combined with abuses of sexuality and power. Certain Buddhist and Hindu spiritual communities have even felt the need to start AA groups to deal with their addiction problems. Alcoholic and addicted teachers have led to the downfall of whole communities and caused major suffering in the lives of students caught in the culture of addiction. For an insightful discussion of this problem see Jack Kornfield’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Problems with Teachers” in A Path with Heart (New York: Bantam Books, 1993, pp. 254-271) and “The Dirty Laundry” in After the Ecstasy, the Laundry (New York: Bantam Books, 2001, pp. 139-157).
(28) Bodhin Kjolhede “What’s in the Mix?” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review Fall, 1998, p. 82.
(29) In his later years Gurdjieff seems to have relaxed his strict admonition that everyone at his table drink. Writing in What Happened in Between (New York: George Braziller, 1972, p. 123), William Welch reports that in 1948 during the Toasts to the Idiots ritual “some did not drink at all, and stories to the contrary notwithstanding, when someone who knew his capacity or had a true disinclination to alcohol declined to drink, he was never, in my experience, treated with anything but consideration by Gurdjieff.”