G. I. Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff International Review

Getting in Touch with Gurdjieff

by Margaret Croyden

This little known mystic from the Caucasus was a prime mover of today’s self-awareness movement. Now a Peter Brook film will introduce Americans to his ‘search for the miraculous.’

On a cold, rainy afternoon last January [1979], two thousand people crowded into Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall to celebrate the 101st birthday of the late G. I. Gurdjieff, the founder of a movement that—although little known—is a direct ancestor of the landmark human-potential and encounter movements of our own times. This birthday was a particularly special occasion, marked by the private showing of a new feature film, Meetings with Remarkable Men, based on Gurdjieff’s life, and scheduled to open in New York on August 5.

For the aging leaders of the movement, viewing the movie was an important emotional experience. But perhaps even more important was the existence of the film itself, a $3 million enterprise conceived and directed by the British director Peter Brook and produced by Stuart Lyons. It signifies a new departure for the Gurdjieff school, whose exponents have always refrained from proselytizing and assiduously avoided publicity, virtually underground until now, the movement has at last gone public.

~ • ~

As a long-time admirer of Peter Brook, I was invited to a private screening of the film, arranged for followers of the Gurdjieff movement. I arrived a half-hour early, only to find every seat taken. Those in the audience had flown in from almost everywhere in the world. Among the Americans were a Pulitzer Prize playwright, an award-winning actress, a well-known New York stage director, and a Madison Avenue art gallery owner, as well as ordinary businessmen and their wives. All these people testified to the steadily accelerating growth in the West of the Gurdjieff movement from a small cluster of people in Paris around 1920 into an international network of centers in London, New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Francisco, Boston, Mexico City, Toronto, Caracas and Tel Aviv.

The film, shot mostly in the hills and plains of Afghanistan, focuses on Gurdjieff’s early years in the Caucasus, where he was born. From the beginning, he was overwhelmed by the need to understand the mystery of human existence, a need stimulated by the oral storytellers and mystics he encountered in his provincial hometown of Kars in Russia. This thirst for knowledge led him to a group of seekers—the “remarkable men” of the new film’s title.

With them, Gurdjieff traveled for 20 years among the religious sects and brotherhoods of the Middle East and Central Asia. These experiences brought him closer to a new way of facing life. He returned to the West with a complex system of thought, including a comprehensive cosmology and metaphysics and—most significantly—a theory about the process of evolution in individual men.

Those prominent in today’s human-awareness movements give credit where credit is due. Oscar Ichazo, founder of Arica, lauds Gurdjieff, who died in 1949, for bringing the teachings of the East to the West in accessible form: “The first man to do so,” he says. Michael H. Murphy of the Esalen Institute calls him “a pioneer of awareness practices.” And in his book, The Unfinished Animal, Theodore Roszak writes that Gurdjieff’s “main contribution as one of the West’s pioneer gurus was to harness the evolutionary image [of man] to a repertory of educational innovations in which we can now recognize the seeds of many contemporary therapies: T-Groups, transactional analysis, Synanon games, Erhard Seminar Training.”

Gurdjieff was among the first to use the term “consciousness” all-pervasively to refer to a faculty more far-reaching than either thinking, perception or emotion. He also introduced practical exercises for concentration and self-awareness. He made use of shock, surprise and hard labor as means of self-confrontation. Finally, he was the first thinker in the West to believe in the evolution of man’s being through “work on oneself”—an evolution which, for him, was related to the evolution of the cosmos. “As above, so below,” he said.

I met the Gurdjieff people for the first time in London, where, months before, I had observed some of the shooting of Meetings With Remarkable Men. On an outdoor set, Peter Brook, in blue jeans and sweater, peered through the lens of a camera and talked to two actors preparing to board a large ship. Inside a nearby automobile, a white-haired elderly woman sat looking at a television set. Brook frequently jumped off the ship to consult with the woman. Nearby, Brook’s teen-age daughter, Irina, watched the activities; so did a group of Gurdjieffians visiting from Paris.

At lunch time in the studio dining room, Brook and his entourage gathered. The white-haired woman turned out to be Mme. Jeanne de Salzmann, one of Gurdjieff’s oldest living students and the head of the world-wide Gurdjieff movement. She makes her headquarters in Paris where she is treated with special reverence. Mme. de Salzmann collaborated on the script with Brook and was his chief adviser on the film. When I asked Brook about this surprising partnership with a nonprofessional film maker, he said, “Why not? She knew Gurdjieff from the very beginning.”

~ • ~

At 2 P.M., I was in Mme. de Salzmann’s dressing room. A French-woman who speaks English with an accent, she has a beautiful smile, and her eyes are exceptionally clear, luminous, and very blue. I was later to think of them as “Gurdjieff eyes.” Coincidentally or not, they appear again and again in his students.

Mme. de Salzmann looked ageless, although she is well over 80, and she was full of energy. She knew and worked with Gurdjieff in Russia at the time of the Revolution, she said. When he arrived in Paris in 1922, she helped to establish his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, known as the Prieuré, a large estate in Fontainebleau serving as headquarters and communal home for the Gurdjieff students.

In those years, Gurdjieff had already attracted many accomplished men and women, including the eminent Russian journalist-author P. D. Ouspensky (whose papers have recently been on exhibit at Yale). Ouspensky became Gurdjieff’s chief pupil and later established groups in London. He wrote In Search of the Miraculous, the definitive work on Gurdjieff’s ideas. At about the same time, Jung’s pupil Dr. Maurice Nicoll and the distinguished mathematician and philosopher J. G. Bennett joined the Gurdjieff movement and wrote extensively about it. The brilliant editor A. R. Orage left his magazine, The New Age, to study full time at the Prieuré. Olgivanna Lloyd Wright, the wife of Frank Lloyd Write; Jane Heap and Margaret Anderson, the founders of The Little Review, which first published excerpts of James Joyce’s Ulysses, all became part of the Gurdjieff inner circle.

What was Gurdjieff’s special appeal to these unusual people? I asked Mme. de Salzmann. She spoke without a trace of sentimentality or nostalgia, but she responded obliquely to my question. “I had already been in the ‘search’ when I met Gurdjieff,” she said. “When I saw him, and he looked at me, I knew that he was the man who could help me. He accepted me as I was—without judgment. All great masters are like that; they can look at you and they know you are searching.

“The search is the same for all religions and spiritual ways,” she continued. “It is searching for something in yourself, something that is missing in your usual state. There are many different ways and different masters who have tried to show a way.”

~ • ~

Gurdjieff’s way is self-transformation through self-knowledge. But he believed that Western man—as he was—could not change his own consciousness, despite being “armed with exact scientific knowledge and the latest methods of investigation. Everything is just the same as it was thousands of years ago,” he told Ouspensky. “The outward form changes. The essence does not change. Man remains the same.… Modern civilization is based on violence and slavery and fine words. But all these words about ‘progress’ and ‘civilization’ are merely words.”

Gurdjieff saw his task as changing man’s being—his very essence—not changing the world (although the implication exists that eventually changed consciousness would change the world).

People are “asleep,” he said. Their psychic function—thought, feelings and body sensations—are disconnected from one another in an unbalanced development that hardens soon after adolescence. The result is—according to his thinking—that we react to events with only one part of ourselves. Thus, our consciousness is stunted; perception of the self and the world is one-dimensional. Above the Storm

In this state of “sleep”—a routine, habit-filled existence—man cannot find his true essence, his real and permanent “I” (or, if you will, his soul). We are machines, victims of the many divided, illusionary “I’s” that distract and enslave us (the “I” that feels one way and the “I” that acts another). But once awake, in Gurdjieff’s view, we learn to develop the real and permanent “I” that reorders and unifies the psychic functions.

Because man is made up of contrary impulses, Gurdjieff believed, “only he will deserve the name of man who has acquired data for being able to preserve intact both the sheep and the wolf entrusted to his care.” Human beings alone have the possibility of achieving this double awareness and thus creating their own individual transformation.

According to Ouspensky, Gurdjieff stressed method, process, the practical side of developing oneself. This process, known as “The Fourth Way,” is distinguished from the three others: the way of the fakir, the way of the monk, and the way of the yogi. The fakir concentrates on the body alone, the monk on feeling, and the yogi on the mind. The Fourth Way (“way” is the traditional word for path to enlightenment) aims to integrate all three into a new synthesis, which affects simultaneously every side of man’s being. Unlike other traditions, the Fourth Way requires no commitment to a guru, saint or idol, or adherence to rituals practiced in temple, ashram or commune. Practitioners need not give up home, job or family or eat certain foods and abstain from others.

Prospective students are not sought out by Gurdjieff followers. They find the groups independently, though often through friends. One joins the group, pays a modest monthly fee which allows one to attend meetings, lectures and other events. There are no formal courses and no indoctrinations. All work is voluntary. The Foundation is funded exclusively through private contributions.

The “awakening process” entails the “work” one does on oneself every day in one’s own environment. But it is impossible to awaken all at once and alone. The Gurdjieff group—with an experienced leader—verifies and enlarges one’s need to awaken. Meetings take place once a week for an hour. Experiences of awakening are studied and discussed. Students focus on techniques and exercises of self-observation.

Perhaps the most unusual set of exercises are the “movements,” some of which are based on sacred dances. They are shown for the first time to the public in Peter Brook’s film. The movements are a set of rhythmic dances or physical stances designed to liberate the energies of the body. They are composed of hundreds of postures and tiny movements, each of which aims to elicit a certain state or awareness of one’s own body rhythms. The language of the body—which Gurdjieff developed long before it became a popular concept—was a means toward the harmonious development of the whole person.

“Gurdjieff worked all his life to make the vocabulary of these movements,” said Mme. de Salzmann who learned them from Gurdjieff himself. “You see, one’s thought and body are never in touch with each other, and when these centers are finally linked, one receives impressions through the whole person and not just through a part of oneself.”

~ • ~

P. L. Travers, the author of Mary Poppins, was looking out the window for me as I arrived. Tall, stately and very “English” in manner and tone, she opened the door of her Mary Poppins house in a Mary Poppins street in the Chelsea section of London and led me to her sitting room. She too had the Gurdjieff eyes: clear, blue and translucent.

“Yes, I knew Gurdjieff. I was taken to meet him in Paris in 1938 without any preparation,” she said. “I knew nothing, I had no expectations, luckily, so the shock of seeing him was lasting.” She closed her eyes to try to recapture the memory.

“He was a serene, massive man who looked at one with a long, contemplative, all-knowing glance. I felt myself in a presence. He had a certain quality that one might call mythological. Later, when I came to be his student, I always felt the same way: He was a man whom you recognized but you didn’t know what you were recognizing.… When we were in Gurdjieff’s presence, we felt his energy infused in us. He could deliver this to anyone in the room. He had something very high and not within our ordinary comprehension.”

“Did he have guru power?” I asked. “I don’t know,” the writer said. “I never met a guru.… But his mere presence gave out energy. To receive his glance was to receive a moment of truth that was often very hard to bear. It wasn’t necessary to speak a word, his glance was enough. To sit there and face him was, in a cosmic sense, dynamite.… He never did any explaining. You had to learn to pick up things as you could. He would tell a story that would provoke laughter in many, tears in others, for they knew that the meaning of the story was a lesson for them. A master like Gurdjieff is not someone who teaches this or that idea. He embodies it himself.… I think I saw in him what every true master has: a certain sacrificial quality as though he clearly had come for others.

“… When I last saw Gurdjieff, just before he died, he said he would give me something for the rest of my life. And he did. I know that somehow this has been received by me.” She did not try to explain what that “something” was.

“How has it changed me? I don’t know, I feel myself not changed, but ripening. For me there are no answers, only questions, and I am grateful that the questions go on and on. I don’t look for an answer, because I don’t think there is one. I’m very glad to be the bearer of a question.”

~ • ~

Go to Paris, I was told; there you will find the most intellectual Gurdjieffians. Paris had been the heart of the Gurdjieff movement in the 1920s and 30s. It was at the Café de la Paix near the Opera that Gurdjieff read, wrote and received visitors.

In Paris, I walked to the café and imagined him sitting in his usual spot engaged in animated and intense conversations with Travers and other devotees like the author Kathryn Hulme. When she first saw Gurdjieff in that café, she wrote, “he looked like a broad-shouldered Buddha radiating such power that all the people between him and me seemed dead.”

I imagined him sitting there talking loudly in a Russian accent, oblivious to the café’s fashionable Right Bank clientele. He was heavyset with swarthy skin, a big mustache and black eyes. From his photographs he looked like a Balkan bon vivant. He wore no special clothes, assumed no regal air, spoke no kind words needlessly, and hated sentimentality. By all accounts, he was a compassionate, robust, high-spirited and exceedingly witty man—very much of this world; too much, in fact, for the taste of some persons. It has been hinted that his hedonism was excessive, and some wondered if his famous “feast of friends”—where “toasts to idiots” were drunk with plenty of vodka and exotic foods were devoured—was the proper setting for spiritual lessons.

Gurdjieff is said to have had an explosive temper. A number of leading students left him or were dismissed by him, including even Ouspensky. Some observers feel, perhaps charitably, that these breaks were engineered by Gurdjieff so that his followers could go out on their own. He taught, they said, by indirection, allegory, fable and parable.

I remembered the story about Katherine Mansfield who chose to meet her death near Gurdjieff at the Prieuré and who wrote her husband, Middleton Murry, that she “loved” the Gurdjieff Institute. “It’s like a dream or a miracle,” she said, “there is something marvelous here if one can only attain it.” And I thought of Lincoln Kirstein, the impresario, who met Gurdjieff in Paris and wrote in the acknowledgements section of his book on Nijinsky, “As in everything I do, whatever is valid springs from the person and ideas of G. I. Gurdjieff.”

~ • ~

What are the practical benefits of the work? I asked Michel de Salzmann, the son of Mme. de Salzmann, who is a psychoanalyst and one of the leaders of the Paris group. “You can get no benefit,” he said. He was sitting in a in leather armchair in his elegantly furnished apartment in the 16th Arrondissement. A handsome, self-assured man in his early 50s with big black eyes, he manifested a robust sensuality.

“Self-realization is no benefit,” he continued. “One gets what one wishes for. The Gurdjieff work is giving up one’s fantasies, it’s converting one’s energies into something higher. It means to awaken to your own inner experience. It means to discover one’s relationship to everything, to be present, to be there. It means that the center of gravity is within yourself. It means to contain your energy voluntarily and consciously and point it in a certain direction. The benefits are what you are. I find life passionately interesting; that is a benefit. The change in oneself through the Gurdjieff work is not to transform oneself into something else. It is to become what one is.

“Can’t this be achieved from psychoanalysis?” I asked. “In psychoanalysis, one works with people who have neurotic problems,” he answered. “The Gurdjieff teaching works at the level of energies and sensations. It strives to achieve another state of being. It is not a therapy.”

After a five-minute walk from de Salzmann’s apartment, another Gurdjieff leader and former journalist-photographer, Henri Tracol, greeted me in the book-lined study of his apartment. A pale, ascetic-looking man, Tracol also had Gurdjieff eyes—clear, blue, catlike, and shiny as diamonds. (The “awakened eye,” said a former Canadian diplomat—a lifelong Gurdjieff student with the same eyes.) Tracol faced me across a bare table. He smiled a lot, but there were no amenities, not a cup of coffee, not a moment of small talk.

“Yes, I knew Gurdjieff, but it is difficult to speak of him without betraying his teaching. If your master dies, how can you dare speak of him as being your master? And how can you dare not explain that you have been his pupil?” His voice was soft and exceedingly musical with a touch of wonderment in it.

“I was looking for a way to approach life, without things always petering out. I was engaged in politics; I had been away fighting for the Spanish Republican cause. I had tried many ways of life, and I had a lot of luggage already. I was looking for something essential. When I met Gurdjieff, I understood that I had to travel, to move, to learn. I was happy to travel; it was a new kind of ‘travel.’

He spoke of the meaning of Gurdjieff’s concept of “being awake”: “It means that I recapture my sense of inner order, that my day is transformed, that I feel more natural, more like an authentic human being.”

~ • ~

At 6 P.M. in New York, any day of the week, numerous people hurry toward a town house in the East 60s, headquarters of the city’s Gurdjieff Foundation. Upstairs in one of the many sitting rooms, groups of 10 or 15 people take their places on hardback chairs and wait in silence until the leader of the group arrives. The dialogue among them is about “self-observation,” “awareness,” “sensing oneself,” “energy,” “attention,” and the general processes of one’s inner state. The atmosphere is cold, quiet and solemn. In the basement, people change their clothes in preparation for the dance movements, the music for which can be heard through closed doors. Filming the Movements

Not all Gurdjieffians are easy to interview. I told John Pentland—an Englishman who heads the Gurdjieff Foundation in New York—that I found talking to members of the New York group difficult. For people supposedly on the road to openness and self-awareness, their reluctance to open up to me seemed contradictory and disconcerting. I asked Pentland why these people were so guarded.

“The idea of esotericism is very much misunderstood,” he said. “The movement has to be cautious insofar as it has found truths that the world doesn’t understand, and is not prepared to understand. Every teaching has its less public side handed down by experience. In Judaism, it’s the Cabala; in Islam, there is Sufism. I think that, when talking about inner understanding, certain conversations necessitate a certain discrimination.” Especially in an age where every new idea produces cheap distortions, slick books and inauthentic movements, Pentland said, popularization and debasement go hand in hand.

The leaders of the New York Gurdjieff movement, like those in Paris, are influential, affluent and cultivated. The writer Anne Fremantle, with her late husband, Christopher Fremantle, has been involved in the work for many years. Dr. William Welch, a successful cardiologist and a trustee of the Gurdjieff Foundation, who was at Gurdjieff’s bedside when he died, and his wife, Louise Welch, hold group meetings in their East Side apartment.

Mrs. Welch spoke to me about the practical aspect of “working on oneself.” “In my everyday life, I have learned to do whatever I am doing as well as possible. The key is to heighten one’s awareness through attention. I have also learned to break my habitual ways. Even cleaning a room, I give it attention, so that my energy is not wasted. In this way, it’s very much like Zen. Then I also ‘sit’ in the morning in order to gather myself together, rather than start the day with energies dispersed. Until I observe myself becoming aware, I am not fully awake.”

Speed Vogel, an artist and retired businessman in the movement for 15 years, is also a member of the “Gourmet Club,” a group of New York wits that includes, among others, Joseph Heller, Mario Puzo, Mel Brooks and Joseph Stein. Vogel, one of the more candid Gurdjieffians, spoke freely when I interviewed him in a Chinese restaurant amid sizzling rice, bamboo shoots and wisecracks from his “gang,” some of whom professed to find his “Gurdjieff thing spooky.”

“I’m not a searcher,” Mario Puzo said. “I have all I can handle right now.” Then he joked, about Vogel: “But we’re his friends, so we’ll put up with anything.”

Speed Vogel himself was more serious. “After 10 years of psychoanalysis,” he said, “I realized I was not ‘free’ in the total sense of that word. The Gurdjieff work gave me freedom.” He had always been interested in Zen Buddhism, he added, “but it was too foreign, too incompatible. Gurdjieff was easier to accept. The Gurdjieff work is an inner thing.” Vogel concluded. “On the outside, I’m the same man I have always been. The difference is inside me. I can still joke with Mel Brooks or Joe Heller and yet go my own way.”

Certainly, as in any movement, there are the defectors and the disenchanted. Some complain that Gurdjieff, the man, was too unorthodox to be a real spiritual master at all. Others protest that his teaching is too demanding and too difficult to follow, the men and women in the groups too sophomoric. Some say that the Foundation people adhere to old ideas, that they do not update the teaching so that it becomes relevant to today’s world. They criticize the Foundation for its hierarchical structure.

“Gurdjieff people are too abstract, vague and closed off. They hesitate to say precisely what their experiences are. It would seem to be a very private kind of work,” run the complaints. A writer who briefly experimented with the Gurdjieff way is quick to say that he found members dour, humorless and joyless. And Roszak in his book The Unfinished Animal called the method “evolution [of consciousness] by ordeal.”

Yet most Gurdjieff followers believe that they have found a way to another state of being—a condition admittedly difficult for a journalist who is not a member of the movement to measure or record. Judging from my own extensive encounters with them, Gurdjieff students do seem to have attained a sense of achievement and purpose, and an air of containment. The Gurdjieff way has been—for them—the best way to uncover the path to the mountain top. But as the Zen master said to his student, “The paths to enlightenment may be different, but once you reach the top, the view is all the same.”

~ • ~

Margaret Croyden writes frequently about the arts. Her most recent book is a memoir, In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys, Continuum, 1993. She is a regular contributor to “The New York Theatre Wire” (www.nytheatre-wire.com).

Copyright © 1979 Margaret Croyden
This webpage © 2000 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Fall 2000 Issue, Vol. IV (1)
Revision: October 1, 2000