I’ve mentioned George Gurdjieff frequently in these pages. He was a very interesting man who searched for hidden knowledge, and found a great deal of it. He had hoped to set up an organization to teach what he’d learned directly, but had problems with that, and decided to write books to indicate how his discoveries differed from contemporary views. His first book, All and Everything, or Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson looks at the human race from the viewpoint of an alien from another world. One of Gurdjieff’s students called his abilities “superhuman”. This first book emphasizes the side of him alien to most ordinary people.
His second book, Meetings With Remarkable Men shows his more human side. It’s kind of a memoir organized around the various remarkable men that he’d known, and who had influenced him. The book is somewhat chronological, but jumps around somewhat too. In any case it at least hints at some of the things that influenced him in the path he chose.
The first remarkable man he writes about is his father, who seems to have been quite wise, though not especially educated in the intellectual sense. One thing he did was force Gurdjieff to get up early each morning and go bathe in the river, something that Gurdjieff said made it possible to stand the hardships he had to endure in his later travels.
Since the young Gurdjieff was quite intelligent, he also arranged for him to drop out of the regular school and be tutored by some very intelligent men in the area. He, and they, also would set the boy a task, and once he got familiar with and interested in it, would set him another quite different task. In this way he didn’t get specialized, but could make or fix a large variety of things.
His father was also a bard, and would often take his son with him when he went to perform old songs and stories. In about the 1880’s the story of Gilgamesh was translated from clay tablets by archaeologists, and Gurdjieff realized that it was one his father had told. It had survived some 5,000 years. He began wondering what other knowledge might have survived unnoticed.
He studied a lot of things as a boy and young man, including Western science. But here he ran into a difficulty. He lived among a variety of people with different customs and religions, and witnessed several examples of what most would call supernatural: someone praying for rain, and it coming; a faith healing; another healing by someone who had dreamed the ingredients to use; and a Yezidi boy trapped within a circle drawn on the ground, and unable to get out until part of the circle was rubbed away. Yezidis are a religious group in the Middle East that reportedly believes that Satan created the world, but are nonetheless (or were) considered to be very moral, despite being (or having been) called devil worshipers.
This last instance particularly puzzled him, but he couldn’t find anyone who could explain it. One person talked about hysteria, but he already knew that hysteria was hysteria, and wanted more of an explanation. He eventually decided that modern science had an incomplete picture of the universe, and decided to look for a more complete one.
Having decided that he couldn’t find anything answering the questions he was asking in modern science, he started reading old books, with the impression that there had been a certain something in the past that had gotten lost, and looking for clues as to where to find it, if it still survived.
He found one in an old Armenian book in which the Sarmoun (or Sarmoung or Sarman) society was mentioned. This was a society which had supposedly been founded about 2500 BC to replace another such society, and was a group of very wise men. In the book was a letter by a priest from about 1200 years earlier, who mentioned that the headquarters of the Sarmoun society were near where the ancient city of Ninevah had been. He and a friend decided to go looking for this society, in hopes of joining it.
But on their journey in that direction they stayed for awhile with a man who told them he had an ancient map that someone had tried to buy from him, but that he’d refused to sell. That interested the boys, they managed to find the map and to trace it. It was a map of pre-sand Egypt, and they decided to pursue that instead.
That journey took Gurdjieff to Jerusalem, where he found the Essenes, also an ancient society which many think Jesus belonged to before he began his ministry. He pushed on to Egypt, and in the vicinity of the pyramids met another of his remarkable men. The two determined that they had interests in common, and decided to travel together to investigate the questions they had. They traveled up the Nile at least as far as Ethiopia, where they may have found information about the early history of Christianity. More people eventually joined the two and traveled singly or together in Africa and in much of Asia.
Gurdjieff apparently traveled as far north as Siberia, as far south as Tibet (where he stayed for some time) and India, and at least as far east as Chinese Turkestan and the Gobi desert. He also mentions Australia and some islands, presumably off southern Asia. Travel wasn’t easy. Some areas were inhospitable to foreigners, and he caught a variety of diseases, some of which became chronic, so that he probably experienced chronic pain in later years.
Several of the remarkable men he mentions had beliefs that he adopted for himself. One believed that no work is ever wasted, so kept himself physically busy, partly to work against his own laziness, and partly with the belief that working in this way would eventually pay off monetarily too. Another friend believed much the same thing, but concentrated on mental work, learning many languages. Still another contrasted local morality with universal morality.
In Muslim society, he said, any woman who invited men into her house, met them unveiled, and entertained them, would be considered spoiled and badly brought up. In Russian society any woman who DIDN’T do these things would also be considered spoiled, etc. These were examples of local moralities. He thought there were universal laws, higher than local moralities, which if followed would make it possible for one to live comfortably in any place. Gurdjieff adopted these practices for himself. He later said that conscience is largely submerged in modern man, but that developing it is a sure way to reach God.
In the book he doesn’t attempt to describe all his adventures, much less the training he undertook in various places. Eventually the Sarmoun sociey did contact him and invited him to a monastery in Central Asia. One of his students commented that Gurdjieff felt this was a sign he was making some real progress, and that this had been recognized. There in the monastery he found one of his old friends who felt he wouldn’t live much longer, and when the head of the monastery offered him a way to make the best use of his remaining time, he felt bound to accept the offer. So he and Gurdjieff spent several days together before he had to leave to begin his last days.
Gurdjieff recounts meeting several people apparently by accident. Two tell how a person could develop two bodies, besides the body each of us is born with, of very fine matter which increases consciousness, and their strengths and limitations. This corresponds with what others have called the astral body. Most other teachers have said that everybody has one: Gurdjieff was practically unique in saying that the two “spiritual” bodies, which he equated more or less with spirit and soul, are only potential in humans, and must be consciously developed.
One of these men was an Italian who had become a missionary, then been abducted into slavery, from which he was eventually liberated. He had no desire to return to Italy since he had made contact with a monastery open to people of any religion who were sincerely seeking God. He says there were Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, a Lamaist and a Shamanist, and Gurdjieff and his friends couldn’t tell which was which.
The Italian talked with them frequently, and one of Gurdjieff’s friends told him he ought to go back to Italy and preach to people there. The Italian replied that preaching is of limited use, like trying to fill a man with bread by wishing. He gave an example of two ministers who regularly visited the system of monasteries and spoke at each one. One was an excellent speaker, able to hold his listeners spellbound. The other was not. He didn’t speak well, and mumbled besides ( he hadn’t many teeth), but the messages given by the good speaker weren’t remembered long, while those by the bad speaker were. The Italian says this was because the good speaker spoke only mind to mind, while the other spoke Being to Being. Intellect is not enough. One must be developed in other areas as well to give messages that actually affect listeners deeper than the surface.
This was a major part of Gurdjieff’s message: Being. There is a chemical side to it, which I can’t claim to understand very well, but which has to do with transformation leading to higher consciousness. One of the key aspects, though, is choice.
He compared this process to making bread. One can put all the ingredients of bread together, but without heat, they will not transform into bread. The power of no, he said, is the heat which can lead to transformation. Such transformation can be accidental, but is best if guided by someone who knows the path, and correct the aspirant. An accidental transformation can lead to fanaticism, for instance.
In this book he doesn’t go very far into the things he discovered. Those are covered more in his first book, and in other books written by some of his students. In this book he mostly hints at some of the unusual knowledge he achieved.
But at the end of the book (minus an addendum about how he made money to support his mission) he and the friend he had met in Egypt meet for the last time many years later. Neither are young any longer, and the friend is much older than Gurdjieff. They decide to climb a mountain, taking the more difficult slope, which is nonetheless much easier than many mountains they had climbed during their travels. At the top, gazing at the surrounding landscape, the friend reminds Gurdjieff of the Italian monk, and says that experience had changed the friend’s outlook.
Prior to that, he said, he had only been concerned with egotism: pleasing himself and his children. The Italian monk had convinced him that there was something else, much more important, with which any more or less thinking man ought to be concerned.
The book ends with this not very specific admonition, leaving it to the readers to decide what that something might be. The effort is to evoke a sense more emotional than intellectual, but not sentimental. As great a tool as intellect can be, some things are more deeply perceived through emotion. What the author probably hoped was to stimulate readers to question and search for themselves. That will probably depend on each individual.