Gurdjieff International Review
The Essence of the Work
An Interview with Jacob Needleman
by Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney
Jacob Needleman is an internationally known writer and lecturer on philosophy and religion. He is the author of numerous books, including The New Religions, The Heart of Philosophy, Consciousness and Tradition, Money and the Meaning of Life, Time and the Soul, and with George Baker, edited Gurdjieff: Essays and Reflections on the Man and his Teachings. He also serves as professor of philosophy at San Francisco State University. Needleman is a long-time student of the Gurdjieff Teaching. Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney visited him at his San Francisco home in February 1991.
Smoley: Youre obviously familiar with many spiritual traditions. Yet you seem to keep coming back to the Gurdjieff Work. Whats so special about it for you?
Needleman: When I was younger, I could never really respond to religious language, or to my particular tradition, which is Judaism, or to the other traditions I saw around me. I started my intellectual life as a scientist; I was going to be a biologist, and religion as such had never really penetrated to me. Many of us felt that way about religion, that there was something about it we couldnt believe in or give our hearts to.
When I read the Gurdjieff ideas, I immediately responded to this language that had something of the scientific about it, a cosmological language, and a very sophisticated psychological language. It didnt reject the scientific vision of things; it seemed to have a place for it. It included all the material that science had discovered, and it gave weight to it, and seemed in some sense to go beyond it without denying it.
Another thing was the encompassingness and the unique self-consistency of the ideas. There was no really earnest question that I had that didnt have a response somewhere in this whole body of ideas, whether it was about the universe and nature, ethics, day-to-day life, art, history, war, sex.
There was of course the figure of Gurdjieff himself, particularly as Ouspensky had presented him in In Search of the Miraculous, which startled me and attracted me in a strange way, both repelled and attracted at the same time.
Having said all that, I also need to say that when I first encountered this teaching, I was rather young, and I was offended by it. But when a person I respected said I should read In Search of the Miraculous, I found something in me was drawn to it even though there were many things in it that seemed unbelievable. Things about the moon and that sort of thing that I couldnt accept. Yet there was something else deeper; I felt the voice of some authority that I had rarely encountered before.
Smoley: It sounds as if one of the things that offended you was the cosmology. A lot of people who work with it have difficulty with the cosmology, which is very elaborate and very contrary to popular beliefs. How do you respond to the cosmology? Do you accept it?
Needleman: First of all, do we need the cosmology? I think we do. I think we need a vision of reality. The scientific vision, what I would call scientism, that was offered to modern people, very crudely put, has it that there is nothing out there to support love, hope, human aspiration, or ethics. The universe is indifferent; theres no consciousness, no purpose, in the sense that we understand. Theres no care for man out there. We human beings are basically some kind of metaphysical freak in a universe that didnt have us in mind and if it did, doesnt care. Were alone.
I could not accept that. I couldnt accept the scientistic vision of the world. I had nothing to put in its place because I couldnt buy into what I understoodsuperficially, to be sureas the Judeo-Christian world view. I was left without a cosmology, and most people are.
So in a way what Gurdjieff offers is a world viewthe idea of an organic universe, a conscious universe, a universe with a purpose. The Gurdjieff teaching said life is a fundamental property of reality, and there is a movement toward consciousness and away from consciousness. There is a ladder of energies going up and down, and everything is included in that in some grand purpose. I found this very reasonable. Later scientific discoveries have more or less confirmed that theres more livingness in the universe than was thought thirty or forty years ago.
Smoley: Can you see empirical evidence that Gurdjieffs cosmological laws work? Is the cosmology valid?
Kinney: Or does it even matter?
Needleman: It matters, yes. It matters very much. To say that one has verified these great ideas would be a tremendous presumption. At the same time, Gurdjieff did teach that one mustnt believe anything on faith, you need to verify it for yourself.
To speak honestly, I cant say that I have verified in detail all of that. But to be equally honest, I have verified some things. And that has really astonished me. For example, to some extent I can say I have verified that there are two directions of movement of consciousness. Theres an ascending and a descending movement. A movement toward unity and a movement toward multiplicitywhat Gurdjieff calls an involutionary, creative movement and an evolutionary movement. I have also to some extent verified that these two movements do not proceed uniformly. There are stages, phases that are sometimes fairly distinct. There also are moments and times in this process when the development of movement becomes altered or deflects in ways I have not wished. I am willing to accept tentatively that those moments may correspond to what Gurdjieff calls the interval.
To an equally limited extent I have seen that theres something fundamental about the threeness of the forces, the affirming, initiating force being met by something inevitable resisting, and that the balancing of those two requires some special third principle that harmonizes or neutralizes or reconciles it. So those are the two major cosmic laws of Gurdjieff: the law of seven and the law of three.
Smoley: A fundamental point in the Work seems to be that we are not awake, but that by certain extraordinary efforts we can become awake. What is being asleep and what is being awake?
Needleman: Man is a being created for an extraordinary destiny. Man has a divinity within him. Hes built to serve some very great purpose. And all the capacity for that is there in the human organism, the capacity of creativity, of willing, loving, knowing, and maybe of action, of what Gurdjieff calls doing. But we are for some reason nowhere near that. Something has gone wrong in us.
There are many illusions that are bred into us. We have an identity thrust upon us by our society, which is itself implicated in these failings. So that by the time we grow to any sort of awareness, we have a social identity grafted onto us, call it the social self or the social ego. It is picked up by imitation or thrust upon us from outside, and does not reflect the interior identity we are born with, which Gurdjieff calls essence. We dont know who we are. We say I to something that is not really I, that is not I am. As a result of all these things we are violent, we kill, we hurt, or else we live in dreams and fantasies. Our lives go round and round, going nowhere.
I am doesnt exist in us. The I is asleep, covered over, undeveloped, unawakened. Instead it thinks, it likes, it dislikes, it moves, and we imagine I am doing it. This imagining that I am, when in fact its all happening through me, is one of the main aspects of what is meant by man is asleep. Its a hypnotic sleep, its something which the world, the society, has bred into us. Its mechanical, Gurdjieff says. We cant do anything, we cant be anything like were meant to be until we begin to realize the condition that were in.
Thats one of the first startling things about this teaching. Its very hard to think were that far from where were meant to be.
Kinney: Thats one of the criticisms that arises for teachings like Gurdjieffs. Theyre described as elitist or antidemocratic, and I think that gives a lot of people pause. Particularly in America, theres a certain attachment to the idea that ordinary people in their ordinary frame of mind have the common sense to make major broad decisions. And Gurdjieff would seem to say youre kidding yourself.
Needleman: I think any intelligent person would say were kidding ourselves. Who really grows up with any kind of sense and experience thinking they can run their lives or they can change the world? This power of self-development is something that needs to be developed, and not everyone is called.
So in that sense, the teaching is not democratic. Its just not. It doesnt mean that the good that some people could realize from it couldnt radiate out to everyone. But its not democratic, like the Bhagavad Gita is not democratic when it says that only one in a million will find the path and of those, one in a million will go all the way.
There are many levels even to waking up a little. One often gets the question, Well, what do you do when you reach the ultimate evolution of man? What happens then? You have to smile at that, because even to wake up one millionth of the way has such a transforming effect on ones life. Its like a drowning man under water saying, Well, what happens when I get to the castle and I have no silk robes on? Its ridiculous; its enough for the drowning man even to get one nostril out of the water.
Kinney: Every few years, something will come out in the paper where this or that group which was based on Gurdjieff will have this scandalous situation, and people are up in arms over it.
Perhaps part of that comes from the notion that as a rank beginner one is not in a position to be able to judge, whereas somebody who is further developed is. So you have to take what they suggest on faith. And if they are seemingly like Gurdjieff, who had a devilish sense of humor at times, its hard to distinguish that from somebody telling you something directly counter to your common sense or your morals.
Needleman: You touch on the question of the many kinds of groups that are studying Gurdjieff, and I am not aware even of all of them. Maybe some of them are bad, maybe some of them are run by people who are unscrupulous or self-deceived. Im not surprised that there would be groups like thatjust as there are people who use Buddhism, who use Christianity, people who use political ideologies.
I can tell you about this issue from the point of view of the Gurdjieff teaching as Im familiar with it. Gurdjieff says, dont change anything for a long time. You live the life youre living, you obey the morality you have, you begin for many, many years to observe your life as it is. The morality that you were brought up with represents some aspect of you that may be very precious in you. So you dont deny that, you dont change that. You watch, you observe, you try to live the life you have as it is, with more consciousness, with more awareness.
So there is no sense in the Gurdjieff teaching, as Im familiar with it, that one goes against any moral commitments or moral convictions whatsoever. That morality may be the only reflection in our lives of something that really had higher origins somehow, even though it may not function very well in us.
At the same time Gurdjieffs views on morality are startling. He taught that morality as we know it is basically automatic, its based on what he called buffers, its relative, its social, whats moral here is immoral there, whats immoral here is moral there, its contradictory. This is the social morality we all know about. That morality is not really what hes interested in; thats part of the sleep of mankind.
Gurdjieff teaches conscience. His aim was to awaken the power of conscience in a human being, a certain power of feeling, related to what he called the higher emotional center, which can feel the good or evil in a more objective way in any situationso that people of conscience, if there are such, will never disagree. There are fundamental laws of conscience which are the same all over the world and have always been in every culture. He teaches that his aim is to awaken the power of conscience in a human being, not morality in the social sense of convention or habit.
Smoley: Sometimes what passes for the Work seems to have a flavor of cruelty in it. One can find analogues to that in Gurdjieffs work. Is that a valid criticism or not?
Needleman: He did create certain conditions for certain people that were very demanding and pushed them to their psychological limits, their physical limits, even, sometimes. If he was a master, he understood his people and knew what they could take and what they couldnt take. And if he was creating strong conditions for people who voluntarily came to him and had a great wish, if he was a master, he knew how far they could go and what they needed to struggle with. Thats if he was a master. If a person is not a master and tries to imitate that, hes courting disaster for himself and for other people. It would be madness for any one of us who is not nearly at the level of Gurdjieff to try to imitate such a thing.
These stories about him are not in context. If you see the whole context, you begin to detect the love behind it and the precision behind it and what he was trying for this person, for Orage, for Ouspensky, and so on. And also these aspects of his life are sometimes the things written about most by people who were only with him a short time. They are certainly the kinds of things journalists picked up on. Everyone likes a scandal, so they all wrote about it, without even seeing what was going on, they just emphasized that, and lots of stupid stories, complete lies, just journalistic nonsense, were spread around.
Im not saying he didnt do things that we would all find shocking in some way or another, but when I spoke to several people, they said, I never knew him to do harm to anybody. When you begin to meet the people who knew him personally, you get a picture of a man who was very, very sharp sometimes, but incredibly gentle and subtle and kind andclairvoyantly kind. And those are the stories that dont get written up in the popular books. You only get the flashy, gossipy kind of things.
Smoley: What is the state of the Work today? Is it possible to pursue it and accomplish something like the ends Gurdjieff and Ouspensky had sought in the form in which they sought it? Is it becoming an orthodoxy? And if so, what can be done about it?
Needleman: There was a group of pupils who survived Gurdjieff, and there was one particular one who apparently really understood what was needed.
Smoley: Who was that?
Needleman: Jeanne de Salzmann. She was his greatest pupil, theres no question about that. She was also very retiring in the sense that she didnt make herself public, nobody was writing books about her. As far as Im able to understand, she carried the Work on in an extraordinarily dynamic way that kept the life of the Gurdjieff Work flowing.
Then the other pupils who were there who gathered around with her, as the years passed, obviously grew in understanding. By the time forty years passed, there was, in my judgment, a circle of men and women who had attained something along the lines of what Gurdjieff was offering. Now they begin to die: Madame de Salzmann herself died in 1990. What she gave, what she brought, what she did, will be revealed over the years, as more people see what is now, at least, an extraordinary continuation of the Work.
Now we have a very dramatic moment in the Work, the third generation, older pupils who didnt know Gurdjieff directly. This is the turning point. Time will tell whether we can continue to gather and be a channel for the forces that Gurdjieff set in motion. So theres no way of answering your question.
Smoley: In the Gurdjieff teachings there is a glimpse of what you may call the true destiny of man, but there is another aspect of the teaching that says man is food for the moon; man is a sort of algae. There seems to be a tension between the sublimity of mans destiny and the miserableness of mans state the way we are. What is mans destiny, from the point of view of these teachings?
Needleman: I think a human being is designed by something or someone to serve a great purpose and, truly speaking, one cannot be happy in a deep sense of the term until one is connected with something like that. Were not built for happiness without some contact with this higher purposeand that is of course theoretically explained in the Ray of Creation diagram, with man being a transformer of energies between the sun and the earth in a kind of cosmic ecology.
Man has a specific role: the human being is like a station of reality. All over the universe, perhaps, there are these sorts of stations and not just man on earth. But man on earth is what we know. Now something went wrong with man, whether it was his fault or whether it was the fault of cosmic forces. Gurdjieff in Beelzebubs Tales has a kind of allegory about that, which resonates a bit with some of the Gnostic myths, where there is a kind of error in the higher realms. Christianity deals with this through original sin. Every teaching has to face the fact that man is not what he was meant to be. At the same time in Beelzebub you have a very interesting idea that the energy that earth, the moon, and nature need from man is going to have to come from somewhere, and if it doesnt come qualitatively from conscious people, from people evolving, it will be extracted from man without his permission, as it were.
Smoley: There seems to be not only a force of inertia in mans evolution, but almost a willful opposition from certain forces in the universe.
Needleman: On earth, I would say, I think thats very important, because the idea is that theres something that man can receive that nature, as we see it around us, cannot receive. Theres a kind of impregnation of what we call matter by consciousness that is meant to take place within the human organism. That quality of conscious force is not given to the trees, the plants, the animals. So nothing in surrounding nature is really able to receive that conscious force, and, in that sense, nature opposes it.
Therefore theres something in man thats against nature, the environment as we know it. As for the body, it can go either way. It can receive a very fine energy through spiritual work, but without a certain kind of development it is not particularly interested in that. It wants to eat, sleep, take its pleasures, and therefore in a certain sense it resists. Its destiny is not in the stars; its destiny is to do something on earth, and although it can receive and obey when the force is there, if the force is not there, its perfectly all right, it just goes on with what it wants to do. So there is a sense in which the body is both heaven and hell; the body is both the adversary and the ally. But this would require a great deal more discussion.
Kinney: Would the Gurdjieff teaching, in the light of all of this, find it hard to agree with deep ecology, which contends that mankind shouldnt consider itself higher or more favored than any other species?
Needleman: Mankind is meant to bring a unique quality of energy to the earth. In that sense, man is higher. But in the sense that man has a right to exploit or lord over creation and make it serve his egoistic purposes, I think the teaching would agree with deep ecologists on that. And thats what I think theyre fighting very rightly, this idea that man as he is is better. Man as he is, underdeveloped man, is certainly not better in any way. In fact you could make a good argument to say that hes one of the poorer specimens on this planet.
Theres been a big misunderstanding, in my opinion; people blame the Judeo-Christian tradition for ecological problems, saying it wants man to master nature. But any deep study of the Judeo-Christian tradition shows you something quite different. It says man is meant to be master of nature to the extent that hes the servant of God. Then he becomes the instrument of Gods will on earth and nature will willingly obey him. But when hes not the servant of God, hes undeveloped, hes asleep, hes egoistic, he has no justification for being master of any kind. I wish the ecologists would stop blaming the Judeo-Christian tradition for something that is only the result of a misunderstanding of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Smoley: The attitude toward immortality seems to be something quite distinctive in the Gurdjieff Work. It says that we are not immortal but we can become immortal. Could you talk about that teaching a little bit?
Needleman: Thats one of the most troubling and fascinating ideas of Gurdjieff. Youre not born with an immortal soul; it has to be developed. In fact you can find that teaching in other traditions. In the Guide to the Perplexed youll find this thing stated, almost exactly, and you can find it, for example, in second-century Christianity in the writings of Irenaeus.
This extraordinary idea that, through inner work on oneself, something forms, and its not just a quality, its like a being. It is I. It is a new being, a new man. Its a seed. Were a seed that can develop into a new man. And Gurdjieff calls this a higher body. It has a materiality of its own thats not the materiality were familiar with, it has a spirituality, an identity, it has capacities, and it can, he says, survive the death of the physical body. Its survival may not be forever, he says. There is yet another possibility, yet another kind of survival, and even that isnt forever.
You do not find in Gurdjieff the usual understanding of immortality as unending. Everything has its end. But something more enduring can be formed, something can be crystallized, and I think theres some misunderstanding about that, as though its materialistic in the modern sense of the term, which is very far from the truth. What is I think necessary to realize is that what the Gurdjieff teaching is speaking about and trying to help people toward is something actually tangible and experiential, not just a speculative fancy, but an actual formation in reality of something thats as real as this table. Thats not materialism. Its making real the spiritual.
Smoley: Another problem people have with the concept of crystallization is the notion that you can do it all by yourself.
Needleman: Nothing could be further from the truth.
Smoley: Tell us about that. Because its certainly possible to believe, at least from a superficial understanding of the Work, that you have to do it all yourself.
Needleman: Oh yes. You have to wish, you have to try, you have to search, you have to open your mouth, but you dont pour in the life-giving fluid by yourself. It comes from above. Even Augustine said God provides the wind, but man must raise the sail. You cant call that doing it by yourself.
And in no sense is this work, though I could see how it could be misread that way, a kind of Prometheanism, where somebody does it on their own. Certainly you have to come and place yourself at the disposal of the teaching, but theres no sense that youre doing it by yourself. Is receiving simply just sitting around crossing your legs, taking a bath, watching television, and God comes and gets you? I think thats fantasy.
This is a very interesting issue for me, the dynamics of the dialectics between grace and effort. When you stress one too much, you have to bring the other back, or it goes off course. Grace, wrongly understood, is a fantasy of passivity. Effort, wrongly understood, is Im going to do it; its a form of Prometheanism and egoism. And the history of every tradition is full of that dynamic. When one goes one way, you have a prophet bring it back the other way, and vice versa. It has to constantly be steered by something like that. Look at Judaism, its there; look at Christianity, its there. Paul says, What can I do? The good that I would I do not. Theres nothing I can do; what will save me? I cannot do anything. But I must believe. Now what is he believing? Isnt that an activity of a certain kind? Not in the sense of doing but something active, something initiating from man.
Kinney: In The Sword of Gnosis, you indicated the value and inspiration you had found in the Traditionalists work. One of the things they tend to emphasize is the importance of working with a tradition, and they tend to have a relatively narrow roster of traditions they think humankind should work with. Gurdjieff would seem to stand outside of that. I wondered how you reconciled that with Traditionalism, or if you view them at cross-purposes.
Needleman: First of all, I think Gurdjieff came from the great tradition. If Gurdjieff is not traditional in that sense, I think that great as these people are in some respects, they have a blind spot. Its as simple as that. He intentionally brought a teaching which he did not want to be associated with traditions. He didnt have the robes of transmission on him, he came without credentialsintentionally. If he had wanted to make people feel he came from an authoritative tradition, he surely could have. We know he was in places where traditions were, and understood these things very deeply.
There was a reason that I think he didnt want to appeal to that side of people. He felt that in the realm of religion there was a great danger of what he called suggestibilitypeople believing something because of some external thing that was impressive or that was emotionally elating or what-have-you. I think he wanted to appeal to something in people that was much deeper, more their own reason, their own intuition, a sense of search, and therefore he appeared very often as being just the opposite of what youd expect from a spiritual leader.
Now this has been an offense to some people, who are very devoted to orthodoxy as we know it, as Traditionalists speak of it. They cant accept that somebody comes in a way that doesnt bear any of the usual marks of the great orthodoxies. I dont think Gurdjieff would have been at all disturbed or surprised by that. And if they were to inquire more deeply, they would not feel that way, Im sure. Theyre put off by it, and theres not much to do about it.
Kinney: I had a question picked up from before on humanitys mechanicalness. If the vast majority of people are caught in what could be called subhuman consciousness, that seems to convert human history into a travesty. It seems that the great religions have shunned that kind of interpretation, like Christianity, which says theres a meaning to human life whether somebody is operating on a relatively simple emotional level or a higher level, but if theyre good-hearted and aim at following the Golden Rule, thats sufficient.
Needleman: If people were good-hearted, and followed the Golden Rule, their life would have meaning. But the point is theyre not good-hearted and do not follow the Golden Rule. Christianity surely doesnt want to say if people imagine theyre good-hearted and imagine they follow the Golden Rule, then their life has real meaning. There may be a religion that wants to do that to us, but thats not the religion that we would want to call Christianity, is it?
At the same time we dont want to judge; there may be people practicing Christianity without any esoteric tinge at all who come to something extremely deep and realas real as any esoteric thing. This is not what I understand that Gurdjieff is saying, that theres no way that anybody could do this except through something which we might call esoteric. There may be people in India, so-called simple people devoted to a god and sacrificing and purifying their feelings in an astonishing way that would make us all ashamed. But what I think hes saying is that there is that sense that much of what we know as religion, as ethics, and philosophy has become riddled with fantasy and is unreal, is hypocritical, is keeping people in imagination.
Smoley: Since were on the subject of Gurdjieff and the great religions, perhaps you could talk a little bit about the source of Gurdjieffs teaching.
Needleman: You have to face the fact that Gurdjieff was a very, very resourceful man. And he probably was able to do things more effectively than many people. One thing he clearly wanted to do is cover his tracks. And he did it very well. So the beginning and the end of the question is that I believe nobody is ever going to know, with what we call any kind of historical certainty, where Gurdjieff got his teaching.
The more you study the Gurdjieff Work and then you study, say, Tibetan Buddhism, you say, Oh, thats where he got it. Then you study Sufism and you say, Ah. Thats certainly where it came from. You go to Byzantine Christianity and say, This is really where . Its extraordinary. You really cant say which one.
I would take issue with anyone who said he was mainly a Sufi. Or he was mainly a Buddhist. Or he was mainly a Christian. I tend to shade a little subjectively toward the Christian side, but I would take great issue with anybody who said, This is it. I dont think were ever going to know, and therefore one might just as well come to the conclusion that he came in touch with a community, a group, a brotherhood, a teaching which is anterior to all the divisions of the traditions, that is somehow at the root of all the traditions. This is all I can say.
The other side of it is that he brought something remarkable to his searchsome extraordinary capacity. He brought his own need, his own intelligence, his own energy, and his own remarkable preparation. Obviously he felt that what he discovered needed to be formulated in a way that a modern man could hear, that could touch the man of today, who on the whole is pretty deaf to the traditional teachings.
Kinney: Presumably people benefit most from the System by working with it for years diligently, but there are books by Gurdjieff out there in the bookstores that anyone can pick up. Do you think theres value people can get from his System, short of working with it for years?
Needleman: Yes, very much so. I think Gurdjieffs writings and the really authentically helpful books about Gurdjieff like Ouspenskys book and just a handful of others, they are like a message of hope to people searching. I think people who read some things are touched, they may feel really, really certain there is something. Its so wonderful to actually feel there is hope. Now they may need something other than the Gurdjieff Work. They may need Tibetan Buddhism, they might need Sufism, they might need Christianity; but the books have helped to orient them toward a kind of certainty, a feeling that there really is something, that there really is knowledge. For that alone they are of great benefit.
Yet if someone tries to practice the Gurdjieff Work by himself from the books, I dont think he can get far. I just dont think its possible. One needs someone whos been that way and can guide you. Its impossible to imagine a person sitting down with Beelzebub and trying to apply it. So I dont think to try to apply Gurdjieff to ones own inner development without the help of others who have tried it is going to help people. I dont think its dangerous, I just dont think its going to help.
Smoley: Where would you suggest a seeker go to learn something?
Needleman: Ones always speaking about what is an authentic teacher, but one rarely discusses what is an authentic seeker. And I wish that question would be opened. What does it mean to search, to look for somebody? Because theres a lot of this kind of thing going on: I, as I am, will certainly recognize an authentic teacher; just tell me what the marks are. Sure I would. But thats not necessarily the attitude thats going to help. So how do you search? How do you look? What does it mean to be serious about that looking? Do you expect it from reading a book? Do you expect somebody to be sort of celibate, do you expect somebody to look like a Cecil B. DeMille Jesus Christ figure?
And if that question could be opened, people might look with more intelligence and less daydreaming.
This interview originally appeared in Gnosis Magazine, No. 20, Summer 1991. Copyright © 1991 Gnosis Magazine. Copies of this issue of Gnosis on Gurdjieff and the 4th Way as well as all other issues are still available from the Lumen Foundation, P.O. Box 14820, San Francisco, CA 94114.
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