The Mystic and the Missing Key

A lot of people today will tell you that humanity in general reached its apex some time ago and is now coasting towards some equivalent of a cosmic compost heap. If they’re being particularly harsh, they might even say that we deserve it, citing all the damage we have done to the biosphere and our seeming inability to break away from bad habits such as war, mass murder and ecocide. Kids are effectively taught this in schools these days, and you only need to turn to your social media site of choice these days to see this view being repeated.

And while there may be a lot of validity in it, what if it was only true from a certain perspective, and that whatever seemingly suicidal traits our species has developed could be overcome?

Those who consider themselves open minded from a spiritual point of view, point out that we are in the process of moving from one zodiacal Age into another. That is we are going from the Piscean Age into the Age of Aquarius (an Age usually lasting between 2,000 – 2,600 years). This is measured in the time it takes the vernal equinox on our planet to move from one zodiacal constellation to the next, although due to different ways of calculating it there is some disagreement about whether we are in the Aquarian Age yet, or whether it will happen in a few years. Astrologers say this Age will be characterised by humanity shaking off its unthinking ‘sheeplike’ ways and taking control of its own destiny again. Whether one chooses to believe in this as a literal truth or more as a metaphor, one can hardly deny that we are going through some sort of rapid transformation from one way of seeing the world to another.

If this were to be taken as a literal truth, what might such a transformation look like? Would it be a hard-fought battle, accompanied by great wars and upheavals, or would we all simply wake up one day and experience epiphany over our cornflakes? Going from past evidence, it would seem that the latter is more probable. If we look at the laws of nature, we don’t see any sudden transformations taking place overnight, especially something that could be considered an evolutionary jump (in consciousness, not physicality), so it seems like any transformation would be gradual and presenting in only a portion of the population at any one time.

Someone who had a great deal to say about the potential of humankind was an oddball mystic who wrote and taught about this topic over a century ago. Looking like something between a stage magician and a Turkish carpet seller (in fact, he was both), George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was a man who almost defied classification. So slippery was he to pin down in terms of concrete facts that we are not even sure when he was born – it was either 1866 or 1872. Even his nationality is unclear. He was likely Armenian, and possessing Greek heritage, although for the most part he lived in Russia and France, spoke several languages and was particularly fond of Persian poetry and dancing. With his bald head, his handlebar moustache and his piercing eyes, his was not a face that people soon forgot. 

Not an awful lot is known about Gurdjieff’s early life, although he did later write a book in which he detailed numerous travels to the East seeking out ancient religions and lost knowledge, in particular the Sufis. By the time he was in his thirties he travelled and lectured widely on the subject of ‘becoming human’. Because Gurdjieff, you see, claimed that only very few people are ‘truly human’, while the vast majority are simply flesh robots. By this, he meant that only a few truly possess free will and are in control of themselves, while all the rest are subject to great waves of external influence that they aren’t even aware of, like corks bobbing around on the surface of the sea. What’s more, they live their entire lives in a state of sleep, unaware of the outside forces that manipulate and control them. Gurdjieff maintained that it was eminently possible for people to ‘wake up’, but to do so involved a lot of hard work and the majority would rather exist in a state of ignorant bliss. This message, unsurprisingly, was a turnoff to most.

As a matter of fact, his teachings were hardly popular even at the start of the 20th century, although he did have a number of loyal followers who attended his talks and tried to use his methods of ‘waking up’. One of them was a Russian journalist called Pyotr D. Ouspensky, and we can be thankful to him for setting down in writing many of Gurdjieff’s most challenging ideas. Gurdjieff himself originally did not approve of his ideas being written down for a common readership, and it was only in later life and had almost died in a car crash when he decided to do so. 

This led him to write the strange sci-fiesque epic Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson, which stretches to over 1,200 pages and has its own lexicon. The story concerns an alien called Beelzebub aboard a spaceship heading to his home planet and recounting tales of ‘strange three-brained aliens’ (humans) to his wide-eyed grandson. Gurdjieff went out of his way to make the prose challenging so that only those possessed with super endurance could finish – or even understand – it. Some sentences stretch to half a page and have so many meandering subclauses that by the end of the sentence you’ve almost forgotten what the original point was. 

The reason Gurdjieff made his work so inaccessible and difficult was because he believed only those who truly hungered with all their being to develop themselves to their true potential deserved to be given access to the methods involved for achieving it. Just as we hear stories of street urchins in the slums of Nairobi studying schoolbooks under streetlights because of a burning ambition to escape poverty, Gurdjieff only wanted to teach those with a similar drive to escape an automatic and reflexive life. 

But what did he mean by an automatic life? Ouspensky got a flash of insight into what he meant when, in the build-up to the First World War, he saw a number of trucks pass in the street piled high with wooden limbs for wounded soldiers. The fighting had not yet started, and the future amputees still had their limbs, but governments and society as a whole were marching towards mass carnage like moths drawn to a flame. There was something zombie-like in their conviction that war was the only solution, even if hardly anybody could convincingly say why they thought such a war was necessary. Nothing could be done to shake the mass of people out of this lethal sleepwalk that would end up with 20 million dead.

Bodies of fallen soldiers in WW1

Having studied Eastern religious practices, Gurdjieff noted that there were three traditional ways of breaking free from this hypnotic state, and thus attaining true free will. He broke them down as follows: the way of the fakir i.e. using feats of strength and endurance to overcome of the physical limitations of the body; the way of the monk i.e. using feats of prayer and fasting etc. to break free of limiting emotional bondage; and finally, the way of the yogi i.e. using meditation and altered states of consciousness to overcome mental limitations.

While all three methods had their uses, each was limited by what it didn’t pursue, Gurdjieff thought. So, in fact, you ended up with Indian strongmen who could sleep on beds of nails and lift huge rocks above their heads but were mentally feeble, or else you had highly spiritual gurus who could meditate for days at a time but couldn’t open a jar of pickles. This, he thought, was both impractical and unnecessary. Awakened people should not be so unbalanced, he reasoned, and a more practical method was needed to assemble the various parts of the human being into an integrated whole.  

As a result, Gurdjieff taught a method he called the ‘Fourth Way’. This was a set of techniques for breaking free from the bonds of limited consciousness that relied on a balance of mental, physical and emotional techniques, and it could be practiced by anyone with the will to do so.  His courses were notoriously difficult, with students made to do all manner of demanding physical feats under an atmosphere of rigid discipline. Sometimes they would be made to fast for days on end, or march on the spot for hours, or chop wood and dig holes. Occasionally Gurdjieff would shout ‘stop!’ and everyone had to remain immobile and in a state of intense contemplation until he said ‘go’ again – no matter what they were doing. One man was holding a hot cup at the time and badly scalded his hand, but no movement was be allowed except for breathing. 

The demands placed on them lasted from dawn to dusk, and when someone once compared the experience to a army boot camp Gurdjieff replied that, no, his was far more difficult because the boot camp involved repeating difficult tasks over and over, while with his you never knew what you were going to be made to do from one moment to the next.

The effect on his students was to break them down mentally and physically until they reached a point where the possibilities opened up for them to be deconditioned from all the ‘bad’ habits they had picked up since infancy. A key idea was that humans had two separate parts: the ‘personality’ and the ‘essence’. The essence was your inner ‘true’ self, while the personality was the rickety egoic structure you had built up for yourself since childhood. 

What’s more, the latter was composed of many ‘I’s. It’s a natural assumption that there is only one ‘I’ inside you, but Gurdjieff said there were many, all competing for control of the real you. For example, the ‘I’ that so effusively and enthusiastically embarks on a weight loss diet is not the same ‘I’ who craves a bar of chocolate – and it’s usually the latter ‘I’ that wins the battle, much to our frustration. Gurdjieff’s methods were designed to rein in the various lesser ‘I’s and focus on building up one true ‘I’. This was the only way of hoping to achieve true will, he said. 

A major part of his teachings had to do with self-observation, and something he called ‘self-remembering’. Self-observation is the act of watching yourself from moment to moment, noting how the various ‘I’s are acting upon you. This practice has gained in popularity in recent years with the rise of mindfulness, but Gurdjieff’s methods went further and deeper and involved techniques such as transferring your consciousness to different parts of the body, or even outside the body altogether.  

Related to this is the concept of self-remembrance. Gurdjieff claimed that most of us couldn’t ‘remember ourselves’ from one moment to the next. He used the example of feelings of extreme pain or extreme ecstasy – try as we might, we cannot truly remember how they felt once the sensation was over. The only way to develop a true free will was to develop the ability to self-remember and to observe the inner workings of our being from one moment to the next, not just from your own point of view, but in an objective sense as well. This, he claimed, was a crucial step in overcoming outside forces.

But what, you might ask, does all this have to do with living in the 21st century and dealing with all the fallout from the cultural, political and economic chaos that’s heating up around us? What relevance could a strange Greek/Armenian mystic from a previous era possibly have for us today in this hi-tech era of smartphones and nanotechnology? Well, quite a lot, as it turns out. The foundations laid down by Gurdjieff and Ouspensky (who went on to teach the ‘Fourth Way’ across the world) laid the ground for a new set of thinkers and writers who asked themselves ‘what is the point of being alive?’ and ‘how can we use the power of our minds to improve our lot in life?’. Could considering such basic but vital questions hold the missing key that will enable us to proceed in this new era?

Those questions seem just as relevant today as they were a hundred years ago, if not more so. After all, so many appear right now to be in unquestioning thrall to politicians and the media that it may now be more urgent than ever. Fundamentally, perhaps we can’t hope to change things for the better unless we are willing to overthrow outdated modes of thinking and improve ourselves first, and to do that we have to stop being so easily manipulated by external forces who are so easily able to keep the mass of humanity in a state of perpetual fear. I’ll be talking about one such writer who rose to this challenge next week. 

One thought on “The Mystic and the Missing Key

  1. Excellent post, Jason. I am aware of Gurdjeff’s precepts through secondary teaching (mainly Colin Wilson’s “The Occult”), but never read him first-hand. I tried reading Ouspensky’s “Tertum Organum” but found it rather impenetrable. However, I can agree that most people are not fully human, and many of the older ones are no more than a rag-bag of habits and memories.


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