Gurdjieff International Review


Sacred Obligations

Mary Stein, Guest Editor


urdjieff taught that in nature everything is alive and interconnected within the vast network of consciousness and lawful exchange. Since his death seventy years ago, Earth’s ecosystems have been, and continue to be, increasingly disrupted and transformed through the actions of our species. How do we understand this, and what are our responsibilities at this time? This issue of the Gurdjieff International Review explores these questions with contributions from a variety of perspectives, beginning with excerpts from Gurdjieff’s talks and writings. Then the remaining articles follow the chronological order in which they were spoken or written (not necessarily published).

Great Nature herself—“all and everything”—can be seen as the grand theme and focus of Beelzebub’s Tales, a book dedicated to revealing and eradicating our mistaken assumptions and beliefs about her. Over and over, Gurdjieff insists on the presence of consciousness everywhere and at all levels in the universe, of pervasive life that supports the whole, that is fed and supported by it and is linked, in constant movement, to all other life.

What has been recorded about Gurdjieff’s relations with plants and animals brings a sense of intimacy and direct communication. There was his “devoted friend” the dog Philos; their early adventures are described in Meetings With Remarkable Men. Later, at the Prieuré, there were horses, dogs and cats, chickens and peacocks, and the flowers that Paul Beekman Taylor reports Gurdjieff sang to.

On the way to impartiality, Gurdjieff instructs, “Like what it does not like. It is best to begin with the world of plants.” As for the animals, “They are waiting for us to move up,” as Kathryn Hulme heard him say.

The picture of our relationship with nature darkens as Gurdjieff surveys the degradation of nature in our time. Great Nature, he declares over and over, regards every single life, whether of bird or snake or lion or insect or man, as equally necessary to the creation and maintenance of her infinite living network. Yet today Earth is experiencing a global extinction of plants and animals that far exceeds, (and without any sacred intent) the animal sacrifices Beelzebub deplored. And we can feel his underlying sorrow for the sacrificed and misused soil of our “petty half-dead terra firma” in Beelzebub’s remarks on the tastelessness of fruit that has lost its nourishing properties.

He tells us that each life has responsibilities to the Whole which it must carry out. Like every other part of nature, we have no choice about that basic contribution of quantitative energy, though we humans are given additional possibilities that the animals and plants may not have. These possibilities cannot be realized without what is both obligatory and voluntary—the conscious payment of attention and care to all that nature has provided over the eons of her work of construction: reciprocal maintenance. The terror of the situation continues—too many of us are asleep to that necessity—and our possibilities go unrealized. And now, the life-supporting treasures of the planet are at stake. Early contributions by John Bennett and Annie Lou Staveley underline Gurdjieff’s concern for the maintenance and renewal of planetary life.

In this issue James George communicates a deep and informed awareness of our desperate planetary situation, reinforcing Mme. de Salzmann’s earlier warnings. Jacob Needleman reminds us of the essential, neglected human responsibility to all of Life. David Appelbaum writes “Nature’s beauty brings me to the place of remembrance.... Bound by a sacred duty, I recognize the part played in upkeep and furtherance of the greater life.” Bill Dudley’s story addresses the part of nature we call human, and its aspiration to be truly normal—an aspiration that the natural world of Earth, sky, and water both supports and challenges.

Today’s science confirms that animals and plants are intelligent, purposeful, aware of multiple relationships. Surely we are being shown the unreality of the artificial boundaries that protect our assumptions of superiority to the rest of nature. Gurdjieff’s remarks on the deleterious effects of an artificial caste system apply to our relations with plants and animals, as Beelzebub makes clear during his attempts to unmask and reduce the horrors of animal sacrifice. These uncaring separations and distinctions can lead, directly or indirectly, to the unspeakable horrors of planetary wars that haunt Hassein, and to the wanton misspending of precious universal energies which Gurdjieff points to in the chapter on electricity.

Despite the urgency of the situation, even prolonged and informed efforts to promote public understanding of nature’s plight are resisted and ignored, as James Elder’s report “from the edge of the swamp” attests. Still, there is a growing recognition, coming very late, of deep connections: the understanding that we are in debt to trees for every breath we take, that the destruction of a forest results in a barren ocean, that the disappearance of wolves foretells the deterioration of rivers.

“Better pull ten hairs a day out of your mother’s head than not help nature.” But what can truly help? Though human beings often think they have an answer, there is ample evidence to the contrary in ruined rivers, decimated or monoculture forests, and depleted soil. At this stage in the history of our planet, we begin to realize that whatever action we take may have unforeseen consequences, like those that followed the killing of a rock rat in René Daumal’s Mount Analogue. Yet a cautionary attitude need not preclude actively studying, as directly as possible, the vast knowledge of Great Nature, accumulated over the eons in the sacred chemistry of the organic film of life and still transmitted by indigenous cultures to those who are able to listen to and act respectfully on what is heard. In this issue you’ll find brief messages from one of those cultures. □

A long-time member of the Gurdjieff Foundation in San Francisco, Mary Stein is the author of The Gift of Danger: Lessons from Aikido (2009) Berkeley: Blue Snake Books, and a novel, The First Year of My Death (2017) Popping Leaf Books.


Copyright © 2020 Gurdjieff Electronic Publishing
Featured: Winter 2019/2020 Issue, Vol. XIV (1)
Revision: August 13, 2020