Spring 2012 Issue, Vol. XI No. 1
Welcome to the Gurdjieff International Review—a source of informed essays and commentary on the life, writings, and teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff.
Mr. Gurdjieff was an extraordinary man, a master in the truest sense. His teachings speak to our most essential questions: Who am I? Why am I here?
What is the purpose of life, and of human life in particular?
As a young man, Gurdjieff relentlessly pursued these questions and became convinced that practical answers lay within ancient traditions.
Through many years of searching and practice he discovered answers and then set about putting what he had learned into a form understandable to the Western world.
Gurdjieff maintained that, owing to the abnormal conditions of modern life, we no longer function in a harmonious way.
He taught that in order to become harmonious, we must develop new faculties—or actualize latent potentialities—through work on oneself.
He presented his teachings and ideas in three forms: writings, music, and movements which correspond to our intellect, emotions, and physical body.
The Oral Tradition
In this, our nineteenth issue, we explore what it means to speak of the Gurdjieff teaching as an oral tradition. Looking at our teaching from this perspective has helped us to discover riches in the concept that go far beyond the everyday association of the phrase “oral tradition” with the act of communicating by word of mouth.
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“That a teaching is communicated in many ways—through person-to-person exchange, through music and sacred dance, song and story—has become more and more clear. Above all, we have come to see that the oral tradition means that the teaching lives and continues through those who seek to embody it; it comes to life only within a community of seekers working together under special conditions.”
Creating Conditions for a Teaching
How does an oral tradition preserve and transmit its treasures? In these passages from his writings, Gurdjieff indicates intentions, attitudes, and other conditions that are needed to support a teaching.
“When you begin your work, you must be in a state of active vigilance... Before beginning, you must prepare yourself.”
The Presence of the Master
Pupils recall lessons that went far beyond words.
“Even a modicum of relationship with a master gives rise to an openness and a reception of energies which is not possible without the teacher’s presence.”
“But at the moment when this threat appeared, like a ditch to cross, a threshold to step over, one was helped to cross it by [Gurdjieff’s] presence itself.”
With his own childhood as a model for education, Gurdjieff presented unusual challenges to the children who lived at the Prieure.
Daumal writes to his teacher of subtle changes in attitude that have appeared in him as a result of their relationship: “Yes, I do the exercises, and I shall try to do them better and better, in the spirit you ask: ‘as a service’ and ‘as one learns a trade.’”
“The aim of Gurdjieff’s teaching is ‘the creation of people’—inwardly developed men and women through whom higher energies can appear to nourish the earth.” Dr. Needleman describes Lord Pentland’s extraordinary work in creating special conditions for a new generation of students in the United States.
The Word as Spoken and Written
In these excerpts Gurdjieff reminds us of the limitations and fallibility of human communication, the need for an exact language and the sense of scale that an exact language would convey.
As we listen to Beelzebub’s Tales being read aloud, we are confronted with our habitual state of inattentive listening. In learning to read it aloud “with art,” we are challenged by ingrained habits that govern the tempo, pace, phrasing, and pronunciation of what we read.
In an excerpt from his recent book Approaching Inner Work, James Opie describes how Michael Currer-Briggs speaks of potential dangers to be considered before passing on a more advanced oral teaching.
The Languages of Music & Movements
Pupils reflect on the oral tradition as received through the Music and the Movements.
“Gurdjieff’s music is part of his whole teaching... To approach the possibility of receiving it may require the development of a new way of listening, one that arises out of the harmonious development of body, mind and feeling.”
“What is coming through the air? What am I receiving? What is this music about? Why does it seem to evoke the poignancy of the life of Man, the forces to which he is subject, the enigma of his destiny?”
Willem Nyland, a long-time pupil of Gurdjieff, describes Gurdjieff playing the harmonium. “It goes up and down and there is a little melody and there is a repetition. And it is Gurdjieff.”
“It is only in an actual class of living people, with one in front who serves as guide—the ‘assistant’—and a musician at the piano, that a Movement comes to life.”
The Oral Tradition as Work with Others
To continue a teaching, work with others within a community of seekers is an absolute necessity.
Madame de Salzmann speaks of the group as “a special condition for exchange and a kind of conduit for higher influences... Real change of understanding would mean that, with the listener also questioning and the questioner really listening, the level of both participants would change.”
In an excerpt from his recent book Martin Benson Speaks, Carl Lehmann-Haupt’s describes how Martin Benson “believed that we humans are capable of being attuned to one another, as the strings of an instrument are. When there is sufficient purity of intent in our work together, a significant sound may be heard.”
What does it take for a team to come together for an important construction project?
“Today we are going to try something together... Pick one person on your team and try to put yourself in that person’s shoes.”
“Was it possible, as one’s body participated in weaving the traditional designs, that an understanding might appear from the work we did together, an ancient teaching revealing itself?”
“The discomfort of crowded seating at a work day lunch was “a small price to pay compared to the inexpressible vision that had been touched and set vibrating. The miraculous was never far away.”
The Silence at the Source
This issue concludes with reminders of the silence in which the words and activities of the oral tradition arise and within which they find their place.
The Gurdjieff International Review is published by Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing. Any information or opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher or editors.