I am rereading PD Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous, which I first read some 40 years ago, and am experiencing the same response: I find the book now, as I found it then, thrilling and fascinating, and am convinced that its picture of the universe is true.
Probably not everyone would agree. The worldview depicted (including cosmology) is very different from what is found elsewhere. It contradicts the scientific explanation for how the solar system was formed, for instance, but if one accepts its postulates, if only hypothetically, the description is very detailed and convincing.
Ouspensky was a prominent journalist in St. Petersburgh, who had published at least one book, gave lectures fairly often, and had a formidable intellect. A relatively recent book describes him as a “magician”: someone who had the ability to convince people to follow him. Early in 1915, when World War I was a few months old, and only about two years before the Russian revolution began, he met George Gurdjieff, an even more formidable “magician”. The book is about what he learned from Gurdjieff, and their relationship.
One of the beginnings of Gurdjieff’s teachings is that people in general are “asleep”. This means, more or less, that people behave mechanically, without any real will or freedom, their consciousness is much more limited than it could be, and distorted besides.
Part of the reason for this has to do with cosmology: he describes a “Ray of Creation” extending from the Creator through a series of seven universes until it reaches this planet and then the moon. This ray only concerns our world, though there are innumerable other rays. At each step away from the creator, each universe (or world) acquires laws, which operate mechanically rather than creatively. The world we know is relatively far from the Creator, and has 48 basic laws, so it’s much less free, and much more mechanical than the worlds higher than ours. These worlds, however, interpenetrate ours, but are made of material much finer than the matter science has been able to perceive.
This is something of a key to another subject: the soul. Gurdjieff is almost alone in saying that humans are not born with souls, and are able to live without them. He says there’s a “certain something” in humanity that survives after death–for awhile–but having a soul, which is something like the popular conception of the “astral body”, is something we have the potential to acquire, but must make great efforts to do so: “conscious labor and intentional suffering”, as he puts it. This is the key to another part of his teaching.
Much later than the time Ouspensky is describing, Gurdjieff writes that from an early age he questioned what the point of organic life in general and human life in particular was. This is an unusual question, something it never occurs to most people to ask. We know we’re alive, are brought up more or less well, and pursue our interests and desires, but mostly take the world as we see it pretty much for granted. Scientists have more curiosity than most, but western science has many of the same blindspots and other failings as the rest of us.
The answer Gurdjieff found was that organic and human life are transformers of energies. We’re familiar with transformations of energy on the material level: soil transforms seeds into plants, herbivores eat plants, and carnivores eat herbivores. One of the implications of evolutionary theory is that the world we see began accidentally, from the strictly materialist point of view. This Gurdjieff denies, though he also says that all the universe is material, composed of vibrations of higher or lower frequency. His view is that nothing in nature is superfluous, that each level of life and each species has a purpose. That purpose is to support the universe, with each level of life supporting at least one other. That’s the purpose of human life too: the energies we transform support the evolution of our planet’s moon, according to Gurdjieff. The moon, if everything goes well, will eventually become a planet like ours, and our planet will be its sun.
This sounds improbable, especially from the viewpoint of modern science about the formation of the solar system, but one need not literally believe that the moon is the place where our energies go to find the concept fascinating. This is ecology on the energetic level, rather than the material level, of which we’re more or less aware. It also says we’re an integral part of our world and the universe, though it’s popular to believe that we’re somehow “apart” from the natural world.
The idea that we’re the highest species in the world or universe leads to the idea that we have the right to use the world and its resources in any way we care to. The idea that there are beings or species superior to us put limits on how we can behave.
A key point about this concept is that humans have the choice (or responsibility) to transform energy consciously by seeking self-perfection, which will also provide the person with a soul. The process is difficult and complicated, but offers the possibility of reaching one’s potential for anyone willing to pursue it. According to Gurdjieff, few of us reach anything close to our potential.
One reason is that we in the civilized world particularly have lives that are too easy. The system Gurdjieff taught requires great efforts that cut very deeply. One reason we see things inaccurately is because we lie to ourselves and each other constantly. It’s very difficult to stop lying, and many will not care to try. Doing so would mean seeing ourselves clearly, and many would be horrified at what they see: that we fail miserably to live up to our ideals, and for stupid reasons. People ordinarily erect what Gurdjieff calls “buffers”, which distract us from reality. Thoughts and fantasies we enjoy, roles we play with different people, and other methods of escape. If we were to decide to try to wake up our buffers would put us back to sleep again.
There are other factors that contribute to sleep. According to Gurdjieff, we have three body centers (an oversimplification): the moving/instinctive center, the emotional center, and the intellectual center. The moving/instinctual center does things like take care of driving the car once we’ve learned. It does this much better than our intellectual center could, because it works faster.
The three centers ought to be equally developed, but in our time and culture usually are not. Perceiving something with any one of the centers (which in some contexts Gurdjieff calls brains, referring to humans as “three-brained beings”) gives us knowledge, but only by perceiving with all three centers can we have understanding, which is better than knowledge. Knowledge may be forgotten. Almost everyone any of us can know lives primarily in one center or the other, which produces three different character types: those in the moving/instinctive center care mostly for the fulfillment of physical needs and desires. Emotional people value emotional satisfaction more than anything, while intellectual people live mainly in abstraction. These are ways of only seeing partially.
Another important distinction is between essence and personality. Essence is what a person has of his or her own; personality is what is learned from others. A person who lives close to nature and has to struggle to survive may have a very developed essence, but undeveloped personality, without which he or she is unlikely to be able to develop further. A person living in a city is likely to have a very developed personality, but undeveloped essence. These qualities need also to be balanced.
Gurdjieff also introduces to the group of which Ouspensky is a part, a “Table of Hydrogens”, which shows important elements and how they function in different worlds. These elements don’t correspond with the periodic table of western science, as it calls atoms the smallest division of any substance that still retains the properties of that substance, so that some “atoms” may be big enough to see. This turns out to be important because it connects with the material basis for the cultivation of a soul.
That, in turn, is connected with the Law of Seven, which Gurdjieff calls one of the basic cosmic laws. It refers to how processes develop in seven different steps before beginning over. But the important thing about this concept is that at two different points the process needs shocks from the outside to continue in the correct direction. Gurdjieff cites three different “foods” that humans need. The first is what we usually think of as food, the second is air, and the third is impressions. Creating a soul requires separation of fine material from less fine material, and this is possible because of the fine elements of air and impressions.
There are two practices (at least) that facilitate this. One is self-remembering, not easy to understand. It has to do with observing one’s self and trying to be conscious of everything one does, and opens the way for finer elements to reach a place in the body where they can coalesce and begin to construct a separate body. Without this practice, the finer elements never reach the correct place. The other practice has to do with learning to control and transform negative emotions, and has a similar function.
The Law of Seven has much bigger implications than that, though, as it controls all processes in the universe. One example Gurdjieff gives of a process gone wrong because of lack of shocks at key points is Christianity, which went from being a religion of love to being the religion of the Inquisition.
All the valid religions, Gurdjieff says, have three levels: the exoteric, which is what most people believe, often erroneously; the mesoteric, which are students who have begun to learn something, but more on the theoretical than practical level; and the esoteric, which are those who experience directly what the religion is about, and are able to undertake practical tasks using that experience. Things that people who inspire religions say are true on an objective level, but since most people live on a subjective level, what they say is misunderstood or disregarded. Their ideas come from outside of ordinary life, and once within that life become distortions of what was actually meant.
Gurdjieff himself was a Christian, though he also respected the other major religions, and learned what he could from anyone with something to teach him. Though he’d been brought up in Orthodox Christianity, and liked some of their spiritual exercises, he had little good to say about conventional organized religion, which he said had been mostly dead for the last two or three hundred years. He was not interested in belief in dogma, but in teaching the means to real spiritual experience, and the ability to see reality.
The latter, he said, is very difficult, and usually when people reach that level of perception they pass out, or their minds blank out. This corresponds with what is reported of a very deep stage of meditation, called samadhi.
To be able to reach such a stage one must learn how to avoid wasting energy through unnecessary tension, etc, and learn how to make our bodies, which can be compared to factories, make more energy. This also has its difficulties, of course, but anyone who can learn to do it then has access to energies which make the different centers work well, as well as constructing the soul.
Different centers work on different energies, and work at different speeds. Intellect works the slowest of the three. Both the moving/instinctive center and the emotional center work much faster, and there are things to be learned through the emotional center in particular that aren’t available to the intellect.
The emotional center is the driving force of humans, but must be harnessed to produce anything of importance. This also means harnessing the body, which can fall into lazy habits. When Gurdjieff later set up his Institute for the Harmonic Development of Man in France he attracted mostly intellectuals, whom he put to work at jobs very physically demanding. Those who were willing to persist found their minds and general perceptions much clearer. This kind of work, he said, required a teacher, because no individual could push him or herself sufficiently.
In fact, he said that schools were necessary, because these could provide the kind of conditions for development that individuals, at least at first, could not (or would not) provide for themselves. Such conditions include living with people one wouldn’t choose to live with, and living in uncomfortable circumstances, as well as doing hard physical labor. In addition, Gurdjieff taught sacred dances, many of which dated back well before Christianity. And one of the exercises practiced was the Stop.
This was used to combat physical habits. Each of us has a limited repertoire of physical stances, and when we move, we move from one to another. In the Stop exercise the teacher may call, “Stop!” at any time, and the students have to freeze in whatever position they are in, not moving anything, and feel the unusual posture. This gives them a more realistic view of their bodies and selves in general than the postures they’re used to.
The emotional center is what can comprehend what Gurdjieff calls “objective art”; that is, art that expresses to everyone (depending on their ability to receive it) the same effect. The art we know is almost entirely subjective, so that our response to it depends on associations. A sad song may remind us of a happy time, and vice versa. The emotional center can comprehend more because it’s faster and more subtle than the intellect. Of course many who live primarily in the emotional center may be sentimental, but they may also have deeper insight into people than others less comfortable with emotion.
Living in one center or another determines what sort of religion a person may have. Man Number One, who lives in the moving/instinctive center, may like showy dramatic religious ceremonies, or may go to church mainly for social reasons.
Man Number Two, living in the emotional center, is attracted to a devotional religion, but is also most prone to becoming a religious fanatic, persecuting heretics and starting religious wars.
Man Number Three, living in the intellectual center, will be attracted to more abstract religions, or may be repulsed by religion altogether.
The centers are also the means of developing unusual powers. One may work primarily on the body, developing great control over it, and undergoing a certain transformation, but may have little idea what to do with this power.
Another may work primarily on the emotions, and also undergo a transformation of sorts, but again not know what to do with the power attained.
Working on the intellect can give a person knowledge of what to do, but not the power to do it.
What Gurdjieff taught was what he called the Fourth Way, which aims to develop all the centers more or less at once with exercises suitable for each stage. He said that this preceded all the ways still being practiced (but that there used to be other ways in the distant past) and stands alone. According to one fairly recent account, he discovered the basics of this system in Ethiopia in the 1890s and spent another 20 years or so at least partly in tracking the diffusion of this system into Asia.
Working with all the centers at once is a way to develop human beings, those willing to work, into types on a higher level than almost all. Besides the ordinary types are Man Number Four who is balanced, has a philosophy he or she lives by, knows where he or she is going, and is willing to do whatever necessary to get there. But this is a transitional type. There are three types above this which we who are ordinary can’t see because their internal organization and perception have no analogy to what we perceive on lower levels. This very vague description is what self-perfection means, and is not something that interests everyone, and not something everyone interested can attain.
Ultimately, the Fourth Way turns out to be a religious practice, but is different from conventional religion. Most religions, Gurdjieff said, were begun by people around highly developed individuals and groups who observed what these groups did from the outside, and copied them. They may have derived some benefit from this, but didn’t have the inner experience that enabled those practicing to continue growing. Thus we have religious groups of outer forms which eventually become outmoded. What they believe may have some valid basis, but may as easily be distorted, and no longer alive in either case. Another difference from organized religion is that the Fourth Way appears at a particular time and place to accomplish some aim, and after a certain time disappears again. People belonging to the group may continue it to greater or lesser effect, but it may also simply disappear.
The descriptions I’ve written here are necessarily incomplete (In Search of the Miraculous is packed full of information that can’t be easily summarized) and misleading because I’m perceiving it imperfectly, never having had contact with it, except through books, let alone having tried to practice it. So all this is what Gurdjieff termed, “Pouring from the empty into the void,” so I’m probably just wasting my time and yours, though I feel compelled to write this.
There is a great deal more that could be said, which would also be misleading to anyone on my level. The development of Gurdjieff’s work in Europe did not run smoothly. He had some outstanding students who were also flawed and didn’t manage to contribute what he had hoped, but he also had students less publicly visible who carried the work on. I suspect that what he brought to the western world is still making a contribution, though not a very visible one.
Ouspensky left Gurdjieff after several years because of conflicts with him, setting himself up as a teacher on the basis of what he’d learned from Gurdjieff. He seems to have been fairly effective, at least outwardly, generating interest among many English people, including several famous ones. But he hadn’t learned enough to be ultimately effective, began having health problems, and near the end of his life reevaluated, and used what he’d learned to his benefit.
After less than two years in France, Gurdjieff suffered a nearly fatal auto accident, and decided he couldn’t proceed as he’d been doing. His health wouldn’t allow him to put sufficient energy into his Institute, he decided he had to convey his ideas and knowledge in some other way, so he took up writing, producing four books to publicize he knowledge he had gathered. These books are purposely not too easy to read. He wanted anyone interested to make an effort to understand, and also not make any knowledge with the potential to be misused too clear. Ouspensky’s account is very different.
Ouspensky, I think, also tries to be discreet, and not irresponsibly reveal anything that ought not to be revealed, but he writes with tremendous clarity. His greatest strength was also his greatest weakness: he is the consummate intellectual, both seeing and articulating with great insight, but staying within his comfort zone as an intellectual.
William Patrick Patterson, a more recent student in Gurdjieff’s system, believes that the reason for Ouspensky’s break with Gurdjieff was because Gurdjieff tried to get him to open emotionally. Patterson notes that all Ouspensky’s family had died by the time he was 29, and suggests that his intellect was his defense against feeling. He was a great man in a number of ways, but was unable to meet the challenge Gurdjieff gave him.
At the same time, his book about Gurdjieff and the teachings is masterfully done. Like Ouspensky, its achievement is that it gives a sense of understanding that is ultimately incomplete without the complementary physical and emotional work. But that doesn’t diminish the magnitude of what he DID achieve.
Gurdjieff, speaking one hundred years ago, believed that our time is “an empty and abortive interlude”. He didn’t deny the possibility of a general human evolution, but saw few signs that it was happening. He saw human evolution as being a matter of individual choice. Most of us, even people of notable achievement we may particularly admire, don’t choose to evolve in the sense that he meant. The ordinary world is easy for most of us to live in, so we prefer not to make the efforts that would carry us higher and deeper. Our civilization demands automatons, and many if not most of us comply without realizing that there are alternatives.
Henry Miller, in his book about Arthur Rimbaud, The Time of the Assassins, sees Rimbaud as yearning for evolutionary advance, and cites a number of other 19th century figures who felt much the same: Van Gogh and Nietzche were only two of many others. Most of them ruined their lives because they didn’t know how to proceed.
The twentieth century had its own gallery of outstanding figures whose efforts led to little, and some of whom also destroyed themselves. Gurdjieff is, to my mind, the most outstanding of these figures that included Freud, Jung, Wilhelm Reich, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and a number of others. Despite all their best efforts, and in spite of some accomplishments that seem laudable, the underlying problems remain with us, and the consequences of our collective and individual behavior may be just beginning. Humans in general are notable for their reluctance to learn. It may well take catastrophe to make us generally more willing to seek a better way to live.