Nottingham, Theodore J.

The Wheel of Transformation: Karlfried Graf Durckheim's method of spiritual awakening

Note to the reader: This article is presented to persons interested in the Fourth Way in an effort to make clear the links between the great teachings on spiritual evolution. Surely, the parallels between what Durckheim calls "critical watchfulness" and Gurdjieff's "self-observation" will be obvious. The teachings presented here are from a master teacher of authentic, experiential transformation and, in that capacity, Durckheim and Gurdjieff share in common a special contribution to humanity.

"The first and most vital practice in everyday life is to learn effectively to value those moments in which we are touched by something hitherto undreamt of." (1)

The German psychotherapist and spiritual master, Karlfried Graf Durckheim died in the winter of 1988 at the age of ninety-two. The inner practice which he developed over his many years of study, travel and experience offers to contemporary seekers a way of radical transformation.

Combining the insights and practices of Zen Buddhism with depth psychology and Christian mysticism, he has created a potent, practical way of inner work which thousands have undertaken. Durckheim begins his teaching by focusing on our rare moments of higher consciousness, those numinous experiences which he names "privileged moments" and "life's starry hours." These are unforgettable times when something greater than our usual awareness breaks through and floods us with unaccountable serenity, joy, or certainty. Such experiences call us toward a new way of living and initiate us into a different view of reality. Mystics, philosophers, saints, and esotericists of all times have pointed to these radiant moments as proof that we are meant to be more than we seem to be. These events have opened our eyes to the higher influences present in our world.

Many teachings have attempted to bring us to a near continual experience of this higher consciousness, but they all seem to suffer a similar fate. Almost as soon as these teachings have been transmitted, they become rigid and dogmatic, and the spirit gives way to the letter. Durckheim's method begins and ends with the individual on his or her unique path. He offers no theory, no cosmology, no religious philosophy. He merely tells us in the magnificent simplicity of eastern sages that each moment is the best of opportunities for working on oneself, and he provides us with a process for the expansion of consciousness which he calls the Wheel of Metamorphosis. These are inner disciplines which each must apply to himself or herself. Verification and understanding come out of lived experience.

Durckheim warns us that this practice must be done continuously with concentrated awareness or it will lead nowhere. The Wheel of Metamorphosis consists of three stages and five steps:

Stage 1-- all that is contrary to essential being must be relinquished.

step 1: the practice of critical watchfulness

step 2: the letting go of all that stands in the way of new becoming

Stage 2-- that which has been relinquished must be dissolved in transcendent Being which absorbs and recreates us.

step 3: union with transcendent Being

step 4: new becoming in accordance with the inner image which has arisen from transcendent Being

Stage 3-- the newly formed core must be recognized and personal responsibility taken for its growth.

step 5: practising this new form on a daily basis through critical watchfulness which leads us back to step one of the process

In this linear expression of the wheel, it may appear difficult to capture the holistic context in which these changes occur. But the key to this process lies in the fact that each step contains all the others and only has meaning within the context of the continuous revolution of the wheel. We are dealing with the cyclic movement of a spiral: critical watchfulness--letting go--union--new becoming generate ceaseless transformation.

Durckheim names this inner practice "self-becoming." The term suggests a dynamic, natural movement which rises out of who we are, just as the image of the flower is contained in its seed. Clearly, intense effort remains a vital part of the journey, but Durckheim's teaching is grounded in natural processes rooted in our earth center, the place within where we are constantly created by cosmic life-forces and which the Japanese call "hara."

For Durckheim, higher consciousness --which he names transcendent or divine Being-- seeks to manifest itself through our bodily presence. This life-force actively seeks to become conscious of itself through our awakening to our essential nature. All of the exercises, practices and insights which Durckheim offers us are meant to render us "transparent to transcendent Being." A conscious being is one through whom the divine life radiates. The personality has been made entirely permeable and obedient to essence, the subconscious has been cleansed and liberated, and the way is cleared for our higher centers to express themselves through our state of openness, receptivity, and presence in the moment.

This work on oneself is not centered on self for the sake of self. Durckheim has a much wider panorama in view. Our efforts are meant to prepare us to reach a state where life in the service of transcendent Being becomes second nature. In discovering our own essential self, we participate in the manifestation of what can only be described as divine, the source of mercy, compassion, and conscious love. Such a possibility requires work on all parts of our nature. But Durckheim is especially insistent on the body as a key to breaking through to a greater consciousness. "Whenever a wrong posture has become deeply ingrained it blocks the redeeming, renewing and preserving forces that arise from the depths of Being." (2)

Durckheim respects it as an expression of transcendent Being in a particular form and calls upon us to seek our right center of gravity within it. This requires work on posture, tension, and breathing. The primary practice to achieve such centering is meditation. This fundamental exercise, however, is not to be confused with the various methods used in our New Age culture. Durckheim tells us that "the purpose of correct practice is not to bring man to a state of tranquility but to keep him in a condition of constant watchfulness and prevent him from coming to a standstill on the Way." (3)

The energy of attention becomes a vital resource for transformation. Moreover, the fundamental effort of divided attention found in the teachings of the Fourth Way and of eastern Christianity is central to Durckheim's inner practice: "Without the attention that collects the whole person--so that he is at the same time focused within himself and turned towards the object--no meditation is possible." (4). This continuous awareness is maintained outside of meditation as well, and is focused on our usual behavior so as to dissolve that which blocks the possibility of radiating a vaster consciousness. Durckheim names it "critical watchfulness" which means continual inner awareness of our behavior, in other words, self-observation.

This relentless effort is meant to lead to a growth of consciousness that provides us with a new sensitivity enabling us to perceive all deviations from our correct center. Durckheim identifies this center as a state wherein a person moves continuously toward his innermost nature. It is not a place but our driving force calling us home. From this center we are able to acquire a clear sense of inner direction, and above all, a "self-confidence that is independent of the world's praise or blame." (5) Without this center, we are the plaything of inner and outer forces.

"Practice on ourselves, in the physical and spiritual sense, is always of two kinds. It involves both the pulling-down of everything that stands in the way of our contact with Divine Being, and the building-up of a 'form' which, by remaining accessible to its inner life, preserves this contact and affirms it in every activity in the world." (6)

Durckheim insists that if we have become conscious of our essence, we have become conscious of our union with transcendence. But to achieve this, we need to have the courage to meet the unknown, and to "endure the mystery that cannot be conceptually comprehended--in short, to pause and inwardly dwell in that to which we are all too unaccustomed, the radiance of Divine Being." (7). Durckheim calls upon us to risk over and over again all that we think we have understood, all that we hold onto as security.

Durckheim deals with the dominance of our artificial personality through the psycho-physical process of "letting go." His long years of study in Zen Buddhism, including eight years with Zen masters in Japan, resulted in his discovery of the unquestionable link between psychological attitudes and bodily tensions. To be released from our misconceptions and buffers is not merely a mental effort but requires dissolving the physical knots and distorted postures which express these attitudes. Clenched jaws, cramped stomachs, raised shoulders all keep us outside of the realm of essence which is the only threshold to our true becoming. Letting go also means "forsaking the brilliance of the rational mind and entering the semi-darkness of another form of consciousness" (8). The tyranny of the intellectual center and of a cultural worldview reduced to the surface of the five senses can be a powerful barrier to the reception of divine inspiration.

"By letting go in the right way, we learn to 'let in' and 'let happen' that which, in spite of all our ideas, projections, desires and prejudices, meets us directly in the shape of the world and comes from the constantly stirring essential being within." (9)

Durckheim sought to awaken people to their higher selves and to the deeper dimensions of reality. As a masterful teacher, he only present a partial picture of a state of being that cannot be expressed in words. His ultimate purpose is to serve as a signpost pointing in the direction of that which is within every one of us and which we must each discover for ourselves.

*The best introduction to the teachings of Karlfried Graf Durckheim is Dialogue on the Path of Initiation: The Life and Thought of Karlfried Graf Durckheim. The English version is available exclusively on the web site of Nottingham Publishing, as is also Becoming Real: Essays on the Teaching of a Master, which gathers the insights of Durckheim's top students and links them to psychology, mysticism, and other key themes. Further information on obtaining these books electronically can be found under the category Current Titles.


1. Karlfried Graf Durckheim, The Way of Transformation: Daily Life as Spiritual Exercise (London: Allen & Unwin, 1988) p. 27.

2. Ibid., p. 37

3. Ibid., p. 51

4. Ibid., p. 44

5. Ibid., p. 65

6. Ibid., p. 25

7. Ibid., p. 81

8. Ibid., p. 70