Gurdjieff: Teacher of Radical Transformation

Nottingham, Theodore J.

The teachings of George Gurdjieff are at the core of all that is most profound in religions, philosophies, and esoteric knowledge. He presents us with practical, uncompromising self-discovery, self-realization and self-transcendence. Gurdjieff said the following about his ideas: "This teaching is for those who are not satisfied with what they have found in life and who feel that there must be something else beside success and failure in life and beyond what they have been taught in school and by their upbringing."

The ideas that he brought to the West and the system of work on oneself which came to be known simply as "The Work," have the power to transform human consciousness and its understanding of reality. Anyone who begins to practice for a time the efforts of self-observation, divided attention, and self-remembering under the guidance of someone who has understood and lives the teachings will discover their radical impact on the human psyche.

Gurdjieff essentially synthesized ancient esoteric teachings and made them approachable and applicable to the lives of rational Western individuals. A seeker will find in his teachings an immeasurable treasure, the essence of so many other teachings, both spiritual and psychological, on the inner life. This extraordinary system of thought, which ranges from the most intimate, psychological insights to a grandiose cosmology linking the individual with the universe, is a synthesis of practices and teachings known as The Fourth Way. It is named the Fourth Way to differentiate it from the other ways of conscious evolution: the Way of the Monk, the Way of the Fakir, the Way of the Yogi. Each of these classic methods of human transformation focus on different aspects of the individual: emotional, instinctive, intellectual.

The Fourth Way deals with all of these dimensions at once, seeking to create a balanced individual whose inner work of transformation occurs in the midst of his or her daily activities. There is no need for monasteries, ashrams, or physical asceticism. Yet the efforts made are as intense and demanding as any of the practices which take place in those settings. The "Work" is entirely inner, invisible, and individual.

Then there is the man himself. Gurdjieff was the archetypal Master, beaming with extraordinary psychic powers developed in secret schools and monasteries somewhere between the Caucasus and the Himalayas; brutal soul-shattering insights; marvelous humor which was both ribald in the extreme and breathtakingly penetrating. He also had a capacity for love that was matched only by his ability to express rage. He was a master hypnotist, a master actor, a master healer. Those who encountered him often had opposite ideas of who he was, usually as a result of his own intentional behavior. He sometimes gave the impression of being a simple charlatan to arrogant individuals who would come to question him, while to others he was the most enlightened man they would ever encounter.

This powerful Master with eyes that pierced to the depths of the soul was also an old man whose pockets were full of candy for the children. This mysterious outsider who revealed new horizons that tore down society's social conventions and cherished beliefs, was also closely, though secretly, associated to the Russian Orthodox community in Paris. Several important teachers in their own right were born from his tutelage. P.D. Ouspensky is the most famous one. He presented the Work from a more intellectual perspective, though it still remained very practical. His book, In Search of the Miraculous, is one of the best expressions of the work ideas available to us.

Other leading students included Rodney Collin and Maurice Nicoll. Both have written remarkable books that shed light on what is now called the Gurdjieff-Ouspensky work. Nicoll's Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky consist of a five volume set of essays that cover the minute details of working on oneself. Gurdjieff called this path the way of the "Sly Man." This term is a poor translation of the French "le ruse" which has less negative implications and might better be translated as "clever" in transforming the difficulties of the moment into opportunities for spiritual awakening. Similar to the Zen Buddhist masters and their saying that "each moment is the best opportunity," Gurdjieff wanted his students to learn how to use the circumstances of each moment -- both the internal and external -- as food for the development of a new state of consciousness.


P. D. Ouspensky opens his lectures recorded in The Psychology of Man's Possible Evolution by stating that psychology has lost touch with its origins and its true meaning. He argues that, in its essence, psychology is the oldest science known to humankind and a largely forgotten one in spite of the fact that never before in history have there been so many psychological theories. He suggests that psychological systems can be divided into two categories:
1. Systems which study the person as they find him/her or as they imagine him/her to be (these are our modern systems).
2. Systems which study the person not from the point of view of what he/she is or what he/she seems to be, but from the point of view of what he/she may become.
These last systems alone explain the forgotten origin and meaning of psychology. According to Ouspensky, psychology is "the study of the principles, laws, and facts of man's possible evolution." His fundamental assumption is that human beings are not completed persons. Nature develops us only to a point, and it is only by individual efforts that further development proceeds. He writes: "Evolution of man in this case will mean the development of certain inner qualities and features which usually remain undeveloped, and cannot develop by themselves."

The evolution of human consciousness is a question of personal efforts and is therefore a rare exception among the majority of human beings. To those who would wonder at the seeming unfairness of this assertion, Ouspensky responds that most people simply do not want to awaken. To become a different being, we must want it greatly and over many years. Without the necessary efforts we will not evolve. Moreover, we must acquire qualities which we believe we already possess but in fact do not. In the Fourth Way, this insight is the first step in the direction of inner evolution: we do not know ourselves.

The teaching tells us: "Man has invented many machines, and he knows that a complicated machine needs sometimes years of careful study before one can use it or control it. But he does not apply this knowledge to himself, although he himself is a much more complicated machine than any machine he has invented." This "machine" is brought into motion by external influences. All actions, ideas, and emotions are responses to the stimulus of external events.

For Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, such mechanical persons are asleep to their true condition and virtually incapable of change. "By himself, he is just an automaton with a certain store of memories of previous experiences, and a certain amount of reserve energy." Everything happens to us as to puppets pulled by invisible strings. Ouspensky believes that if we could perceive this phenomenon, then things would begin to change for us. We human beings are not merely stimulus-response machines, but machines which can know that we are machines! Realizing this, we may find ways to cease being simply reactive organisms.


Another central idea in the Fourth Way is that the individual is not one. We have no permanent "I" or Ego. Every thought, feeling, sensation, desire is an "I" which believes that it is the whole person. Yet none of these "I's" are connected and each depends on the change of external circumstances. To make things worse, there are often impenetrable defenses between each "I" which the Work calls "buffers" separating these subpersonalities from one another.

Gurdjieff states that one of our most important mistakes we make is our illusion about our unity. He writes: "His "I" changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings, and moods, and he makes the profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago." Our every thought and desire lives separately and independently from the whole. According to Gurdjieff, we are made of thousands of separate I's, often unknown to one another, and sometime mutually exclusive and hostile to each other.

The alternation of I's is controlled by accidental external influences. There is nothing in us able to control the change of I's, mainly because we do not notice it. Each separate I calls itself "I" and acts in the name of the whole person. This explains why people so often make decisions and so seldom carry them out. A little self-observation will prove that we usually think, feel, move and respond to the stimulations acting on us, without our being aware of what is happening within us. This self-observation is in fact the first practical effort required in the Fourth Way. The student is to create an "observing I" which observes with objectivity his or her inner activity. To develop an objective space within which can see without judging is extremely difficult but is also the first breakthrough out of our mechanical behavior and the virtual hypnotic trance in which it keeps us.


Dr. Kathleen Speeth, from the California Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, has suggested that what Ouspensky and his teacher Gurdjieff have proposed are psychotherapeutic techniques which bring the various fragments of the ego into awareness, gradually acquainting the "I's" with one another. But there is another element in the Fourth Way view of human beings which creates a backdrop to the ideas just mentioned. This has to do with the very concept of consciousness.

Ouspensky dismisses the notion that consciousness is equivalent to mind activity. Consciousness is a particular kind of awareness concerning who we are, where we are in the moment, and what we know in the deepest dimension of our being. It never remains the same but can be made continuous and controllable through special efforts and study. The Fourth Way points to four states of consciousness: sleep, waking state, self-awareness, and objective consciousness. Most everyone lives only in the first two states.

The third state, self-consciousness or self-awareness, is one that we believe we possess even though we are conscious of ourselves only in rare flashes. Such flashes come in exceptional moments, in highly emotional states, in times of danger, or in new and unexpected circumstances. We have no control over their coming and going. This state of consciousness is similar to the Buddhist concept of "mindfulness" which Thich Nat Than describes as "keeping one's consciousness alive to present reality." However, the Gurdjieff teachings provide more details about our ordinary state which is described as "sleep," the same state referred to by Christ when he said "Watch! Do not sleep."

Ouspensky writes concerning this condition: "If we knew the quantity of wrong observations, wrong theories, wrong deductions and conclusions made in this state (our ordinary consciousness), we should cease to believe ourselves altogether." Dr. Speeth, in her book The Gurdjieff Work, observes that anyone who has a difficult time accepting the notion that as we are we have but few moments of true self-awareness, ought to make a study of the loose jaws and vacant stares of people in public places and in situations where they do not think that they are being observed.

According to the Fourth Way, the central obstacle to higher levels of consciousness is a phenomenon known as "identification." Ouspensky describes it in this manner: "In this state man has no separate awareness. He is lost in whatever he happens to be doing, feeling, thinking. Because he is lost, immersed, not present to himself, this condition is known as a state of waking sleep." When we are identified, our attention is directed outward and we are lost to ourselves. Self-awareness is then a state in which we become aware of ourselves and are no longer hypnotized by the external event before us.

There is a higher level still to be reached which the Work calls "objective consciousness." In this state, we come into contact with the real world from which we are cut off by the senses. Some psychologists deny the existence of higher states of consciousness, dismissing them as dream-states. It is strange that Sigmund Freud, who discovered so much about subconscious states, should not have postulated the existence of levels of consciousness above as well as below the level on which we usually live. But in order to reach the more silent areas of consciousness, what the Work calls our "higher centers," we must get beyond the noisy regions of our minds in which we spend so much of our time.

The attainment of higher levels of consciousness is closely related to certain religious practices which are found in all cultures, such as meditation and contemplation. These are difficult paths to tread because our attention is always being caught by the ceaseless chattering in our heads. Yet it is possible to become receptive to a state of pure consciousness without thought, a state in which truth is revealed to us directly, without the use of words.


In order to see clearly the roots of our psychological distortions, the Fourth Way defines two aspects of the individual: essence and personality. Essence is what a person is born with, personality is that which is acquired. All that is learned, both unconsciously through imitation and through acquired likes and dislikes, constitutes the outer part of the person, that which is changed by outer circumstances. Though personality is necessary, it must not be left to dominate essence or it will produce artificial persons cut off from their true natures. "This means that with a quick and early growth of personality, growth of essence can practically stop at a very early age, and as a result we see men and women externally quite grown up, but whose essence remains at the age of ten or twelve."

Through the practice of self-remembering, we can separate ourselves from the pretenses and imitations which have enslaved us since childhood and return to who we actually are. Such a return to our essential nature is accompanied by a sense of liberation unlike any other. "To thyself be true" is the first commandment on the way of self-development and the attaining of a higher consciousness.

According to Rodney Collin, one of Ouspensky's primary students who started his own Fourth Way School in Mexico, the fundamental abnormality in human beings lies precisely in the divergence between personality and essence. The more nearly we know ourselves for what we are, the more we approach wisdom. The more our imagination about ourselves diverges from what we actually are, the more insane we become. He writes: "Unless a man first finds himself, finds his own essential nature and destiny, and begins from them, all his efforts and achievements will be built only on the sand of personality, and at the first serious shock the whole structure will crumble, perhaps destroying him in its fall."

For Rodney Collin, the soul is the totality of the moments of self-awareness during one's life. Yet moments of higher consciousness are very rare and gone as soon as they come. Once again, the reason such self-consciousness is so difficult to attain is that it is dependent on the conscious use of attention.


One of the most practical and meticulous study of the ideas of this inner work on oneself is found in Maurice Nicoll's masterful Psychological Commentaries. Here the reader will come upon the "nuts and bolts" of transformation. Nicoll states somewhere in these five volumes of lectures given to his students that, as you make progress in the Work, "what you took as yourself begins to look like a little prison-house far away in the valley beneath you." This is a vivid expression of the "third state of consciousness" or "self-remembering" as it is called. These flashes of greater consciousness are the unexpected results of the strenuous efforts made in order not to lose oneself in the rush of outer circumstances, to be cleansed from the acids of negativity, and to maintain a heightened awareness grounded in the present.

The student is to reach a point where he or she can make the choice not to react automatically to external stimuli. This requires going against the grain, against long established habits and self-indulgences. The question is as basic as: can you find the willpower to choose not to react angrily to something that makes you angry? Rather than being wasted in such an outburst, the energy accumulated through this effort can be available for a moment of intensified consciousness. Such a moment will flood you with peace or quiet joy or a sense of profound liberation.

Oddly enough, such rare and precious moments often come in very paradoxical events. When night is darkest, a shaft of light can suddenly breaks through. Self-remembering, combined with the insights of objective self-observation assists in the creation of a balanced individual who is not completely under the sway of his or her inborn nature and acquired habits. It is not possible to experience a vaster sense of reality if we are entirely under the dominance of the intellect to the exclusion of the emotional or the instinctive part of our nature and vice-versa. In attempting to make the "machine" work right, it is necessary to change attitudes and behavior developed over years of wrong functioning.

Ouspensky told his students that it is only when we realize that life is taking us nowhere that it begins to have meaning. This observation is not a philosophy, but a pragmatic realization which can fundamentally alter our perception of ourselves and of the world around us. Maurice Nicoll gives a hint of these first stages of real change in his Commentaries: "This gradual withdrawal of energy from the customary, easily resentful and brittle feeling of 'I' is accompanied by a gradual new and broader feeling of I, as if one were living in a larger place...It is like being introduced to a new civilization, to another form of life." He points out that by using the inner camera of self-observation, we begin to open a mind above the level of the sensual mind.

Here is where the psychological experiences of the Fourth Way begin to reveal their numinous and "religious" character. The same idea is found in the teachings of Karlfried Graf Durckheim which is informed by Zen Buddhism, Christian mysticism and psychotherapy. He writes of the experience of higher awareness in this way: "It is no longer the old I but a wider, more comprehensive one. We do not lose ourselves in it but, on the contrary, truly find ourselves. A new breathing space, scope and sphere of action opens up and we realize only then how confined we had been before, how imprisoned and isolated."

Durckheim also gives us a clear description of the first steps of inner development which are fundamental to all such instructions: "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."

Self-remembering, then, is a process of being lifted out of our ordinary sense of self into a purified, detached space well known to those long practiced in meditation. But in the Fourth Way this birth of new awareness can be accomplished while one crosses a city street or takes out the trash. Nevertheless, despite the practical approach of the Work, self-remembering remains as intangible and paradoxical as any spiritual exercise. Reminiscent of the Zen koan, Rodney Collin told his students that we cannot remember ourselves until we forget ourselves. And at the height of his powers of understanding, he united the Fourth Way with the wisdom of all times and places: "To feel beauty, to feel truth, that is self-remembering. Self-remembering is the awareness of the presence of God."


The idea that we are not awake but live in a partial dream state from which we can awaken opens onto radically new horizons. The illusions we foster concerning ourselves melt under the light of increased consciousness and we awaken to new dimensions of reality which set us free. We are then able to relate to the world around us without the usual defenses, masks, and confusion which constitute much of human interaction. We become capable of a new kind of compassion.

Ultimately, this third state of consciousness, which is our birthright, frees us from the unnecessary agonies of a little ego always struggling for self-importance and awakens us to immeasurable vistas of new insight and understanding. The world becomes a different place, we become far more than our imaginary selves ever dreamt of, and the potential for happiness, fulfillment, and genuine usefulness to humanity are now tangible realities. This use of attention is similar to the "watch of the heart" of early eastern Christian spirituality and the "remembrance of God" of the Sufi mystics.

To be aware of higher reality while dealing with ordinary reality requires an effort of awareness, detachment, concentration and insight which are the result of long practice. These experiences of vaster consciousness have been tasted by everyone in rare moments of our lives and our reminiscent of the wonder years of childhood. But despite the deep emotion or astonishing joy that accompanies them, they are always fleeting, ephemeral, and uncontrollable. The disciplines of the Work eventually make the practitioner receptive to longer, more frequent encounters with these regenerating and illuminating events.

These are the transformative moments that people have sought in drugs and voyages to exotic lands, in love and intense emotion. On the foundations of objective self-observation and liberation from constant entanglement (or identification) with circumstances of the outer world, these experiences become the oxygen of our souls. The mysterious and obscure passages of sacred scripture from all religions then begin to take on deeper meaning and each individual discovers for himself or herself those life-giving encounters with transcendent reality. Expressions such as "the kingdom of God" or "Nirvana" are then no longer lovely ideas but concrete, accessible experiences.

In proportion as we learn to remember ourselves, our actions acquire a meaning and consistency which is not possible as long as our attention moves only from one fascination to another. If we take seriously this state of awareness called self-remembering, many new possibilities open to us. But it does not take long to realize that there is an enormous resistance in ourselves against mastering this new state. We find that we have to give up all the more psychopathic ways of burning up our attention and energy which now seem such a necessary part of life--irritation, indignation, self-pity, all sorts of fears, and all the ways we hypnotize ourselves into satisfaction with things as they are.

The premise that we are not awake but live in a partial dream state opens entirely new horizons in dealing with our problems and the difficulties of other people. The release of the illusions we foster concerning ourselves frees us to relate to others without the usual defenses and masks which constitute much of human interaction.

At their core, the originators of the Fourth Way as we know it today were religious men in the true sense of the term. Work on oneself leads to a liberation which can be compared to the enlightenment and divinization of more religious methods. But writings on the Fourth Way have generally remained entirely secular with the notable exceptions of the works of Maurice Nicoll and Rodney Collin. Left with the exoteric dimension of the Work, the Fourth Way can be reduced to the development of personal powers and dehumanizing attitudes. To be somewhat liberated from mechanicalness and the illusion of unity can allow a person to manipulate those who are still caught in the tyranny of waking sleep.

The Fourth Way is meant ultimately to transcend even the Work's own magnificent thought structures so that every student can find for himself or herself the new life of a higher consciousness which constantly seeks to reach us if only we would make the effort to awaken and ready ourselves to receive its treasures of wisdom and regeneration.

Gurdjieff required that each person verify the teachings for themselves based on their personal observations and experiences. That is why he rarely mentioned the idea of "God" even though he called his teaching "esoteric Christianity." His task was to help people free themselves from all that is false and imaginary in order that they might become receptive to their higher self and enter uncharted dimensions of consciousness on their own through liberation from the tyranny of their ego.

Gurdjieff broke through the dogma of institutional religion and revealed the dynamic truth within the teachings. He made clear the psychological insights beneath the rust of rote repetition and blasphemous misuse of the words of enlightened teachers. His insistence on verification forced the student to come upon the stunning fact that life is indeed more than that which the senses perceive and to re-interpret spiritual insights in the context of their own lives. Belief was to give way to experience and experience to transformation so that the "new man" could emerge out of the ashes of rejected illusions.

It is for this reason that Gurdjieff was so merciless on his students. He crushed vanity and artifice, mocking those who thought they understood something. He differentiated between two forms of knowing: knowledge and understanding. The first is of the head, the second is that which takes root in our being and transforms us. He did indeed humiliate many egos stuffed with pride and broke people's confidence in their own importance.

A great library is now arising around this unique and extraordinary man. Some condemn him, some worship him, most praise his influence on seekers of the twentieth century. He remains an enigma, even a danger to those who would approach his transformative teachings without a compass. But there are some who have found their lives forever enlightened by exposure to this strange and complex man. His colossal personal efforts, carried on in spite of a revolution and two world wars, and his desire to share the awakening he had found with seekers here in the West, will someday be recognized as one of the central events of our century.

Gurdjieff tore through our most cherished beliefs with astonishing force and irreverence, stung our vanities with brutal honesty, and called us to that ultimate journey toward the consciousness of who we are and who we are meant to be.

Behind the exotic masks of this oriental magician-rogue-teacher was great compassion. Children and animals sensed it, while seekers of all classes and types found healing and new life from his sometimes bizarre requirements. Gurdjieff came to wake us with uncompromising affection and assist us accessing our deeper selves. No one walks away unchanged from the teachings of this intense Master who has taught us to discover someone even more elusive than himself: the true nature of our being.