Gurdjieff International Review

Facing Mr. Gurdjieff

By Michel Conge

“MR. Gurdjieff”: The sadness one sometimes glimpsed in his eyes was that of all teachers faced with the impossibility of transmitting the truth. At the Prieuré, he seemed like an oriental prince; he was the intractable master. Later, toward the end of his life, years after his accident and the closing of the Prieuré, having finished his work as a writer, he placed himself completely at the service of his pupils and appeared even greater in stature, immense in his simplicity and renunciation. Dependent on all, he served each of them; this was freedom.

Gurdjieff made it clear that there existed a source teaching at the root of what he transmitted: a knowledge having the status of an objective science. He is thus like a bridge thrown down between ourselves and the world of objective reality, and this compels us to realize something essential: that, being the bridge, he thereby escaped being taken by us as the goal. It would be wrong of us, therefore, to betray him by making a god out of him. We must not make his teaching into a new religion. To me he appears all the greater for having known how to remain the one who prepares the way, indifferent to praise and blame alike.

Gurdjieff insisted on the fact that man forgets himself by forgetting the seed that is within him, by turning his back on reality, which is the One. In so doing he increases his suffering, worsens the state he is in, hastens his own downfall and that of his fellow men and adds to the suffering of the Creator, for, in some way, the Creator is he himself.

The only direction is: to connect. Our role, the role of man, is to understand the laws that govern the universe in order not to transgress them and to allow, if not to assist in, the process of transmutation. Shun all that dissipates, go toward what unites; flee from what dilutes, seek what concentrates; shun what degrades energy. Every being, at its own level, should “incarnate” the bridge between what is above and what is beneath itself. Man should find these three levels within himself. “Mr. Gurdjieff” came to bear witness, to remind, to make known, to prepare, to connect, to enable the link to be made.

A teaching is a two-way channel linking Heaven and earth, the invisible and the visible; the “visible” being everything in the universe revealed to us by our sense organs, and the “invisible” being what other, more discerning, organs of perception enable us to perceive beyond the surface, which until then seemed to be the sole reality. To say that a teaching belongs to the monastic way or to the “fourth way” means nothing more than to indicate the form, the particular section, the access point to the channel. Through the channel an influence can penetrate and be conveyed further. The channel itself is of course made up of forms, but even more so of individuals. Forms or conditions or exercises, people of different levels of being forming an unbroken succession—and it is precisely because it is a channel that there must be no interruption. It could also be said that these individuals act as a junction or a link, that they are like neurons joined one to the next to form a circuit, along which a current can pass.

It is not possible to define these realities precisely with the descriptive and logical means available to the lower levels of thought. As soon as one attempts to talk about them, one is compelled to have recourse to the language of analogy and metaphor. “It is like a sower.” … “It is like a householder.”

Mankind is in need of a flow of fine energy to set it in motion and to open a way toward the possibility of being more vibrant, more alive. People live a narrow, cramped life; they get in each other’s way; they are drowsy, breathing an oppressive, thin, impoverished air. A teaching is as if someone on the roof, outside, where pure and vivifying air is moving, suddenly punches an opening for the air to flow in, enabling them to breathe at last. Thanks to this inflow of air, a change takes place in their metabolism; a possibility of awakening appears.

I have often pondered this “miracle,” this rupture in the level of consciousness. One evening at Mr. Gurdjieff’s I clearly understood this; I had that sense of communication which can scarcely be described other than through everyday images. I shall venture to recount the event; those who have ears perhaps will hear. I had a question to ask him about my relationship with a member of my family. It was difficult and painful. He listened, looking straight ahead, into the distance and a little upward. When I had finished speaking, he uttered not a single word; he simply lowered his gaze toward me and I understood. I was in contact with the invisible; everything was clear. But the inner shock caused by this sudden and intense light was so violent that I began silently weeping.

What people have not always grasped is that he never sought to scandalize, but to make someone understand something by provoking a moment of sincerity which, quite often, could only be brought about through the reactions he aroused. He acted, playing a role designed to bring people face to face with themselves, their weaknesses, their slavery, and to help them inwardly to separate their automatic reactions—born of an education he considered abnormal—from what was real in their being. Do not jump to conclusions when you hear tales about him, do not judge by appearances; try to put yourself in the shoes of the person for whom the shock was intended. These accounts are directed at you, too. Of course, people differ, and this or that trial may mean nothing to you, but be sure that had he sensed, as he excelled in doing, that if a deliberately chosen condition had no salt for you, he would not have put you in it. For you, something else, which you were not expecting, would have happened, and you would have been turned upside down. In my case, he never failed to catch me at just those points where I was terribly vulnerable.

Besides that, if, while you were being tested, you knew how to take hold of yourself, to “come to” and understand with gratitude what was being revealed, he would stop cold. I remember one evening when he launched a stinging attack on one of my weak spots. I silenced my emotions… He abruptly stopped baiting me and, turning to Mme de Salzmann, simply remarked: “Doctor understand!” And I was gratified with that deep look which goes right into your soul, after which he smiled and went on to something else.

So his behavior could be totally unpredictable, cordially setting us off on our way or turning us from our error toward ourselves or leading us back to ourselves. That was one of his little secrets. With a minimum of means, he flipped you over like a pancake, led you left or right, and then left you stuck. And you realized you were no longer on the same track and tried to learn the lesson. It always produced a strange feeling: one would show up at his place in a certain mood and a quarter of an hour later one would find oneself in another mood. It was rather weird, and one always wondered how it could have happened. Each time one swore never to get caught like that again, and yet …

The fact is that people do not realize that they themselves make the rods they are beaten with. They maintain, and naïvely allow to appear, a sort of illusion of themselves which inevitably makes them vulnerable. If I could be what I am, without all these illusions, this jumble of ideas, these surrogates, I would be invulnerable. But that is not at all the way we live! We live imagining a whole series of things, forms and aspects which are nonexistent. We abandon ourselves to nature, which plays with our illusions. And, of course, a master also can play with us, if he so wishes and considers it necessary, and he can turn us this way and that as he fancies.

But when one was facing him, being somewhat free from all the intellectual and emotional wiseacring, in a state much closer to essence, then Mr. Gurdjieff could say whatever he wanted! In fact he took advantage of the moment to put you to the test; he would launch into terrible attacks, stab you, but it had no effect on you. I well recall such moments; and he would say: “Ah, ah!” These were extraordinary moments and we all experienced many of them, intended for ourselves as well as for the others, because we took part together in this wonderful game. It was fantastic. We were—to some extent at least—essence. I do not say fully essence but at least a little. Relieved of—free from—madness, from foolishness. Then it was really a clean fight with him. But not with sheathed foils—with naked blades! And the very instant that one lost contact with one’s own essence, one was sliced in two by the sword. One felt the blade; it was awful. But one could not hold a grudge against him; that was the rule of the game. And what an interesting fight it was too! He used every possible means, just as in judo, sword-fighting or fencing, every way of wrong-footing you. And when you held good, when the inner balance was maintained, all you got was the onomatopoeia: “Ah, ah!” But that spoke volumes. You knew that the fight was over and that he would let you rest a while, the time you needed to gather strength for the next bout. And one loved him at that moment, one felt real gratitude. All the more so since one realized that he had arranged everything so that one could hold out… And then he launched into a fresh assault.

In different ways, all those who approached him experienced moments when, under his sole influence, inner separation became possible because it was called forth. It was imperative to take up the challenge. One found oneself perhaps quite poor, but what wealth to find oneself a little what one is, and not merely bound to social, conventional, artificial self-images! Better to be very poor but real than burdened down with a load of knowledge and foolishness.

Gurdjieff was there, constantly, to compel us, to make us think more, and more again, not to let us complacently rely on discipline or belief. We were allowed scant rest and, after a joyful moment of truce, everything was thrown back into question. Then all that is grasping or all that is afraid in me—and God knows how much there is in all of us—was again set in motion. I could see that, and it prevented me from being fooled and from beginning inner effort solely under the impulse of such movements. Obviously, the behavior of a man like Gurdjieff—as of so many others in the past—is incomprehensible for most people; it took several years of striving, of contact, and of, at last, untrammeled experience to begin to understand the goodness of behavior that was sometimes, apparently, insensitive, harsh, cruel, and which, in the last analysis, was nothing of the sort! This game goes way over our heads; coming from anyone else it would have been unexplainable and unacceptable; from him, no.

He played this game also with people who were not “in the Work.”

At Mr. Gurdjieff’s suppers we sometimes had the opportunity of seeing people appear who did not even know what this teaching was about. Gurdjieff always saw to it that the meal went off in such a way that all of a sudden they were put in a situation where they could realize that they did not know what to answer, what to do, what to say. The most gifted found themselves disconcerted. I saw, for instance, a highly gifted actor no longer quite knowing which role to play. It was a good example. He may have seen something about himself; in fact he must have seen something that put him sorely on the spot because he never came back. . . .

Traveling with Mr. Gurdjieff … ! That provided a continuous opportunity for taking part in this extraordinary game. You cannot imagine what a four-day trip with him meant, and the things that happened! Let me tell you about one. During lunch in a large hotel in a tourist city, we were given an unforgettable demonstration. To tell the truth, it is almost impossible to describe, so banal was the apparent course of events. We were having coffee when the head waiter, who on our arrival had not hidden from me his contempt for Gurdjieff and his retinue of “poor bleating sheep,” came to make sure that everything was in order and that Gurdjieff was satisfied. He might not have had any esteem for Gurdjieff as a man, but he had to consider him as a customer and a very good customer at that. He addressed him then with the usual obsequious smile. Gurdjieff replied with kindness, saying that all was a “bed of roses,” and then, very courteously, asked him to sit down with us: “Take a glass of alcohol. I have here special vodka like you not have in hotel.” The head waiter apologized no less courteously: “Alas, Sir, it is quite impossible, my position here does not allow me. I am very sorry, believe me.” “Oh, but you must,” said Gurdjieff, “if I invite, you cannot refuse; that impolite thing!” “I know, I know. It is indeed most impolite and I again apologize, but the house rules strictly forbid me to accept invitations from our customers, and then … not in front of the waiters. I’m sure you understand.” “Ah,” said Gurdjieff, “rules, that one thing, but here very different, little dining-room, we alone among ourselves, all friends here. If you sit, no one know.” It was obvious that the poor man was beginning to give way. “Only little glass vodka and we have quiet talk. Pleasant thing for me.” Suddenly the head waiter stiffened, made a discreet sign to his colleagues, who slipped quickly out of the room, and he sat down beside Mr. Gurdjieff. It was then that a very strange experience began. But it all went off in such a simple fashion, for an ordinary onlooker, that if I had not noted it down at the time I too could have forgotten its exceptional character.

There is an episode in In Search of the Miraculous about two men in whom Gurdjieff separated essence from personality. Here it was not the same thing, but I cannot find a closer example. On this man he carried out a sort of live autopsy. It began quite gently and continued so. Gurdjieff started first speaking to him about his family, inquiring how many children he had; then about his wife and that medal ribbon he wore in his buttonhole. He congratulated him and got him to talk about himself. Minute by minute, all his hesitations visibly melted away, and, little by little, everything came out into broad daylight. He could have made him admit his most hidden aspirations; the man relaxed without any apparent pressure, happy to be able at last to open his heart in confidence. We could see the weaknesses, the fetters, the good sides. He was a good father, ill at ease in his role as a flunky, and for once he could let go and relieve himself of all that weighed on his heart. There was nothing shocking about it, no more shocking than a surgeon removing a tumor from his patient. We pitied him, but without any criticism; this poor fellow, half asleep, was in pain, and the conversation was doing him good. With what science, what art, Gurdjieff freed him from himself; far better, and at all events much quicker, than any psychoanalyst could have done. And all the while as one would chat about random things with someone met by chance, save that there one indulges in reminiscence without revealing anything of oneself, while here the man at last opened up and seemed freed from the spell of his imaginary defenses.

“Sheep, bleating sheep!” he had said to me. Had he but been able to see with the eyes of the spirit what was going on inside himself! The conversation lasted at least a quarter of an hour, and at the end Mr. Gurdjieff reached into his pocket and gave him a big handful of candies: “For your children.” I learned later that the children were over twenty, but at that moment the man no longer properly knew whether his children were still going to nursery school or just starting to shave. Gurdjieff had some kind words for his wife and again complimented him personally, adding how happy he had been to have a heart-to-heart talk with him, man to man. That day I realized clearly where his power lay: he was capable of laying bare a man’s soul, of making him transparent without hurting him.

At the end of the experience the man stood up and thanked him; he looked very happy and smiled at us—the ones “under hypnotism.” He had had a good time and, who knows, from that day on he might have felt differently toward Mr. Gurdjieff. But that I never found out. Had I met him, I would not have taken the liberty of asking him about that. I felt myself bound by “professional secrecy” of a new sort and I would have considered it indelicate to disturb what Gurdjieff had sown in this man’s heart.

Who was Gurdjieff? Was he, according to the expression in In Search of the Miraculous, a man who is “a law unto himself”? It is clear that he had another law, much more demanding. But what about ourselves? It is always difficult to stay on one’s own level. We are forever doing too little or overdoing things. The realities of our being, which otherwise remain almost invisible to us, are revealed through this game of the master. Do you not feel that there are moments in the Gospels when Christ is playing a game? What holds us back is that we do not understand the aim. It is completely inaccessible to us. What was Gurdjieff’s aim? He took on a task, a role which was his own. He fulfilled something corresponding to a necessity, on a level of the world far beyond the mediocre level. What was his aim? What is the aim, the role, of spiritual teachers? If one does not understand their aim, one fails to grasp the way they act and indulges in absurd judgments.

Mme de Salzmann often used to say: “Mr. Gurdjieff was here for a particular undertaking. He had a task to fulfill. Something must be accomplished at all costs.” What was that undertaking? Not merely to “set up the groups.” It is much more closely connected with another task: to enable something to get through; a transmitter is required, a channel through which influences may pass.

We receive influences but not, or very little of, those which could vivify us fully. Every man receives a very small quantity of them. Without a shadow of a doubt that is the chief concern: to enable energy, knowledge, to get through so that, during a man’s whole life, impressions of a higher order than those provided by life may become embodied in him. Mankind is a living medium out of which something can—and must—be born. But a certain quality must emanate from mankind which cannot be brought forth without specific help and that help can make use of totally irrational, illogical means. Communication must be established between two worlds. Who will establish it? That is what is meant by an undertaking, that is the vocation of all “schools,” of all the traditional ways.

I knew “Mr. Gurdjieff,” but for the first year I would have been hard put to write or say what Gurdjieff was like; it was impossible for me to say, “He’s like this or like that.” I received an avalanche of shocks—not always unpleasant, far from it—and such a supply of energy that I did not know what to do with it all. But something was at work within me. He put us in conditions that turned us upside down. And that was a good thing! For how can we get out of the closed circuit we are in without being shaken up a bit? It’s impossible. We are forever singing the same old refrains over and over again. When you come asking someone’s help in a very difficult field, you have to leave him the choice of weapons … and the weapon of the master is to unseat you. When the shock is well received, you cannot but be grateful. A whole length of wall has collapsed, and no amount of lecturing could have achieved that. The role of the master is to shake the prisoner’s cage. He takes hold of what you bring him, throws it back at you, and your whole edifice crashes to the ground.

Mr. Gurdjieff always wanted something. He would put it to you in such a way that you wondered sometimes what was meant. At first sight it looked like a blatant pretext—or even bluffing—but that was to make you grasp the problem. He did not want you to identify with him. He was so anxious to defend the Idea! It was the Idea that was so close to his heart. He would get your back up so that you would not worship him. He always went about things in that way. It was a trick—to arouse anxiety toward himself the better to turn you toward Truth. You must understand the aim he pursued: never to succumb to the power of “the god of self-calming.” No place was left for lying—he wanted the truth. The impression was such that we could not but experience commotion which generated questions.

Many a time I found myself alone face to face with him, as he used to say, “for a good cup of coffee and to talk about this and that,” without having any precise question to ask him. Then I would say to myself, “This is a moment I mustn’t let slip by.” I would hunt around for some question to put to him. In the end I would say “Sir, how should one understand this or that?” And then the most extraordinary part was not his answers, it was his silences… They would last for minutes on end… Then everything inside me fell apart, my fine words, my eagerness to get an explanation, my wish to profit from being with him, and then . . . I found myself all alone. Many others had the same experience. There were those extraordinary silences in which one felt like some poor fool asking the wrong questions or putting the right questions in the wrong way. It gave tremendous depth to talks with him. It brought out the “knowing-understanding” sequence … and suddenly something was there. One must experience that tête-à-tête with oneself to feel that one is most of the time being passively towed along by one’s intellectual and emotional functions, but what is important is “to go and see for oneself.” Gurdjieff did not answer, and by not giving an answer he answered much more.

The evolution of man is perhaps the experience of energies which go to waste but which can return to their original Source… All those moments spent next to Gurdjieff enabled me to understand that life is given us as an “experience,” an “exercise.” When I let myself become immersed in the sort of shipwreck that our lives are, if I experience it consciously, I come out enriched. What people call “their experience” is almost laughable. For instance when someone getting on in years says “Young man, believe me, I have experience,” he is talking nonsense and yet he has almost said something true. For if he were conscious of everything that has happened to him—misfortunes, luck, incidents of all kinds—he would truly be a man of experience. That is to say that everything that resurfaces, everything that comes back, everything that converges, can be entirely renewed. The descent of energies, which I can see in myself—or bring to mind as levels of human beings—has not therefore been a complete waste. There is now a return. I come back from a long journey. I come back truly laden with experience. I have understood something. That is the prospect opened up in the grand myth left by Gurdjieff, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. This return to the planet of origin after countless errors and faults, after straying so far, having suffered agonies… Behold! It is another being that returns; he returns bringing with him the breath of all the worlds he has journeyed through. And he brings it in armfuls of his own free choice. He has paid his debt. He did not descend for nothing. That man was not created for nothing.

~ • ~

This text represents excerpts from various talks of Dr. Conge with his pupils and was originally published in Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and His Teaching, New York: Continuum, 1996, edited by Jacob Needleman and George Baker, from the French edition compiled by Bruno de Panafieu.

Copyright © 2003 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2003 Issue, Vol. VII (1)
Revision: November 1, 2003