This essay is taken from the ALL & EVERYTHING 2003 International Humanities Conference Proceedings. One session of the conference consisted of “A Forum of Those Who Knew Gurdjieff” which included this paper.
Gurdjieff told me (and I include in the “me” all the others in his presence at the time) never to trust myself until I knew myself. He told me to question whom I was whenever I made a decision or a judgment. “Not until you discover who you are not will you be able to begin the journey to discover who you are.” Gurdjieff made me acutely aware of my multiple identities before him. Whatever I said to him raised the question in his eyes: “Do you know who is saying these words?” Doubt yourself, he taught, and whenever I feel that emotions are governing my actions, I need to question what center in me is in control.
Gurdjieff gave me a sense of urgency to know how to concentrate, not just mentally, but psychically, physically, and rationally at once. He taught me to feel any or every part of my body at any given time. Awareness is control, he taught. Awareness of pain, for example, seemed to facilitate understanding its sources. Taking pills was an abdication of responsibility for alleviating, not eliminating, pain by will power. One can learn more from pain than from pleasure.
My earliest memory of Gurdjieff was his throwing biscuits at me from his seat in the conservatory at the Prieuré, after I had pestered him for some sweets while he was taking his afternoon tea or coffee. He threw insults with the biscuits, “bolda, svoloch!” I learned from that moment that words should not be accorded the power to either reduce or abrogate material pleasures.
Later, when I was a young man, Gurdjieff taught me that nothing need bother me unless I let it do so. But, it was the lesson from witnessing his reaction to circumstance that taught me the most. He was able to not hear things that might tax his patience or waste his time. He was able to not feel pain or discomfort.
In his direct teaching, he counseled me to avoid at all costs doing what was expected of me, first by my mother, and secondly by my school teachers. If I concentrated on fulfilling their expectations to be what others wanted me to be for their sake, to realize their plans for me, I risked forfeiting my own possibilities to become what I might become. Education is a factory turning out servants for a social system, when it should be, as it once was, an avenue toward a realization of self. He said that his own teaching was not dedicated to changing anyone’s “actual” today, but in awakening in him a potential that might be developed into tomorrow’s actual.
Gurdjieff gave his pupils a means of developing potential. A step in the process was a conscientious scan of one’s false selves. One’s “real” self is perceivable, he said, only when all the false ones are exposed and disdained. What then is left is one’s essence. So, one must learn to recognize the false in order to find the real. One method of discovering the false is to play it, to play the role one thinks is the real self. “Play what you think you are and you will see how shallow is that role.” I remember him saying that the best way to see myself was to observe and assume his perception of me.
Gurdjieff taught these things, and the words he used were understood in as many different ways as persons who heard them. He knew that I was incapable of “objective understanding,” but he said that I might be capable of realizing conscientiously what factors in my consciousness determined my understanding.
Such precepts are easily repeated in varieties of forms to a wide audience with different effects. What makes them particularly resonant for me is the example of the man himself. Knowing Gurdjieff personally was an experience that gives a force to his teaching that I cannot put into words. Gurdjieff was at once the exemplar and the denying example of everything he said. He was to me a Dostoiesvkian figure, one who reveals truth by displaying the false. He seemed demonic, but suggested that though God can play the devil, the devil cannot play God. He exemplified the man who reveals himself capable to reach as high as low he can stoop.
He was slovenly in habit, dressing in disordered fashion, smoking and drinking in apparent excess without any display of refined manners. He swore, ranted, and insulted. He had not a whit of patience, cutting off the speech of others as if they had said nothing. Once, reaching a railway crossing with the barriers lowered, he simply turned and drove in the opposite direction from where he intended to go just to avoid the wait. He arrived finally at his destination as if there was no time or day expected for arrival. He did not reserve rooms or dining tables in advance, but always got service, one way or another. His display of uncontrol was sublime control! He manifested anger at trifles and treated disasters as amusing trifles. He displayed negative emotions as playthings of an unshakeable positiveness.
There were lessons to be gleaned from such behavior, and finding the lesson was itself a lesson. To me, a young man, Gurdjieff was everything, but at no one moment could I be sure what he was. He was an example of all things one could be. In memory he remains the fullest human being I have known or have been able to conceive of.
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A professor of Medieval English Languages and Literature at the University of Geneva, Paul Beekman Taylor has written three books on Gurdjieff, Shadows of Heaven: Gurdjieff & Toomer (Weiser, 1998), Gurdjieff and Orage: Brothers in Elysium (Weiser, 2001), and most recently Gurdjieff’s America: Mediating the Miraculous (Lighthouse Editions, 2004).
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Featured: Fall 2004 Issue, Vol. VIII (1)
Revision: March 1, 2007