The book Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff – The Man, The Teaching, His Mission is a work of immense power and love by William Patrick Patterson, a teacher of “the Work,” as Gurdjieff’s teaching is called and the author/ producer of several books and videos on the subject.
It is over 600 pages long (over 400 narrative with 200 supplementary) and is a painstakingly precise account of two figures little known in the mass media, almost overlooked in popular history, and yet who may have been among the greatest thinkers of their time.
Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff (G) appeared in St. Petersburg in 1916; P.D. Uspenskii (as Patterson refers to him) met him shortly thereafter and it later turned out that Gurdjieff had sought him out for his writing ability and notoriety in intellectual circles to help build his following.
Patterson has gone through the personal papers and books of Gurdjieff’s students and G’s own writings to piece together his early years, including his brush with death and his apparent teachers, as well as the society of seekers of which he was a member before he appeared in St. Petersburg. Patterson himself has written extensively about the teaching and some of the material, for example the section on the women who studied with Gurdjieff in Paris (a group called the “Rope”) presumably echoes his earlier work.
Patterson has also pieced together the early life of P.D. Uspenskii, including his own searches for ancient wisdom and personal relationships, and brings the two men together in the strange circumstances that were pre-revolution Russia, circa 1916.
But what is extraordinary is how Patterson describes Gurdjieff’s method, wonderfully echoing Uspenskii’s own description of how he was exposed to the teaching which is the spine of Uspenskii’s great work, In Search of the Miraculous. Prospective students were introduced mysteriously and led to a strange space with Persian carpets and strange artifacts, where they met a man they each described as unique, powerful, insightful and with the capacity to see right through them.
Everything was kept secretive and private. You had to know someone who knew someone to meet Gurdjieff and become a follower in St. Petersburg, and also later. It was also made clear that if one did not sieze the opportunity to take advantage of the moment, one might never get another chance.
One who did seize the opportunity was a particularly impressive young man, Paul Dukes, whose encounter Patterson describes in some detail. It is also worth noting that Dukes wrote about the encounter as well in his own biography, “Unending Quest.” As Patterson writes, Dukes was known as the ‘Man of a Hundred Faces.’ He assumed a number of identities and disguises and infiltrated numerous Bolshevik organizations, including the Communist Party, the Comintern and the Cheka, the Soviet security organizations. In 1920, he was knighted by King George V who called him the “greatest of all soldiers.”
He was presumably the first James Bond, spying on the Bolsheviks when he met Gurdjieff in one of his many roles or identities. Another of Patterson’s immense skills is recreating the effect of how Gurdjieff was a completely different personage, and elicited completely different responses, from those he encountered and taught.
For Dukes, for example, Gurdjieff was the strange Prince Ozay who was beguiled by the young Englishman’s sincere search for truth and his work with yoga, breath and the deeper hidden (esoteric) meaning of The Lord’s Prayer.
ASIDE: Another current student of Gurdjieff’s work and author is Dennis Lewis, whose book about breath work, Free Your Breath, Free Your Life: How Conscious Breathing Can Relieve Stress, Increase Vitality, and Help You Live More Fully, was recently reviewed by Michael Jeffreys here on CE, you can read that review by clicking HERE.
Patterson is scrupulously objective in his narrative, but there is magic in the footnotes where he ventures some commentary and speculates about the players’ intentions and real motivations. Here he provides a true taste of the “friction” between students and teacher, and particularly the uncanny allure of Gurdjieff’s magnetic personal style. Here is a sample Footnote from page 7:
“That Ozay plays chess and Gurdjieff once said that playing chess was ‘pouring the empty into the void’ actually supports Gurdjieff being the Prince, as this is a favorite saying of those who have seriously played ‘the Royal game’ and given it up…. “
Patterson describes how taken with Gurdjieff Dukes was, and how he became one of his many followers before the Russian Revolution, along with Uspenskii and other Russian intellectuals and artists. The narrative follows the growth of the groups and Gurdjieff’s methods for ferreting out the insincere by making prospective students jump through many hoops, and the teaching was veiled in secrecy.
Uspenskii became convinced that Gurdjieff had access to ancient wisdom and wanted it for himself—but Patterson describes how at various turns Gurdjieff “played” with his individualistic personality to try to make him see his own habitual tendency – that is, to live in his head and not his heart.
The Gurdjieff/Uspenskii groups fled the Bolsheviks and survived many hardships, often through luck and more often through Gurdjieff’s cunning understanding of human nature. Eventually Uspenskii could not continue to accept many of Gurdjieff’s methods and peculiarities and broke away, although his wife continued on with Gurdjieff for some time.
Patterson weaves both the history and the psychological studies of these two men together beautifully with a sense of a time that few of us can comprehend; he intersperses the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany as he alludes to the larger forces that influence the various individuals and their struggle to discover their own capacities with this teacher. Later Gurdjieff suggests that he anticipated the rise of Fascism and wanted to see how the world would react before writing his final work, ‘All And Everything.’
Gurdjieff admired the energy and power of America and also satirized the materialism of the United States, and used his visits to raise capital by “shearing” the wealthy to subsidize the work and the lessons of the less fortunate. Patterson spans decades as he follows Gurdjieff to his Prieure (institute) in Paris and describes his methods of hard work to break the conditioning of students—intelligentsia would clean toilets and garden—and his conversations over meals and in cafes where students would toast themselves as various kinds of “idiots.” Here is a Toast to Compassionate Idiots:
“Everyone an idiot, even God. But when these idiots see another who is another kind of idiot from themselves, they become angry and curse him. This is very characteristic of these idiots. No compassionate means that among this company exist idiots who know that all are idiots together, so that pity all and not become angry. These are compassionate. I am unique idiot so I am no more this idiot compassionate.” (369)
A major part of being an “idiot” is believing in the imaginary concepts of the mind as opposed to what one has gotten for oneself. At one point he hears Gurdjieff’s voice in his head with nothing being said verbally. This is precisely the sort of “miracle” Upsenskii had been seeking and yet he needed to analyze it and could not simply accept it as a clear indication of his position under his teacher and his need to sublimate his own formative mind and the “need to know.”
Was this “real?” Was this telepathy -our scientific term of a phenomenon not proven by conventional science? Perhaps it was hypnotism– suggestion –Mesmerism or some other magical ability? Was it “super” natural or a part of nature that he had learned in Egypt as an initiate, in Tibet, in the Caucasus… Was this how Gurdjieff understood his “clients” and “sheared” them of funds—and perhaps worked as a secret agent in his own right?
All of these mysterious aspects are hinted at and yet not posited authoritatively by Patterson, the consummate researcher and observer. What is posited is simply that such events occurred –the meaning and interpretation (the knowing) remains a mystery. Finally Uspenskii broke completely with Gurdjieff and founded his own school, first in England during the Second World War and then in the United States.
As Patterson calls the teaching a “sacred science,” what Gurdjieff saw in Uspenskii was the ability to convey his “system” scientifically, due to his great intelligence. This would make it a bridge between East and West and comprehensible in terms of the Renaissance and Enlightenment in the West. Where Uspenskii fell short, apparently, was his own egoism and coldness—he did not seem to manifest Gurdjieff’s own capacity for kindness and compassion. He did not live the Work as much as he seemed to relish the role of revered and admired teacher/ writer.
Gurdjieff, on the other hand, for all of his acerbic nature and generalizations meant to tweak the “corns” of his students, and expose their vanities and conditioning. He did this by living as suggested, with a general manner of a man of courage and “being” towards how one ought to behave.
For example, as Patterson describes Hitler’s rise he also mentions Gurdjieff’s assessment of racial characteristics of Jews; their tendency to remain apart and not “assimilate.” Yet on pg. 406 we learn that in the midst of the Nazi occupation of France– “Gurdjieff tells pupils to hide Jewish pupils who could not escape.” This is testimony to Gurdjieff’s ability to model both aspects of the teaching –knowledge he seemingly alone possessed of the historical context of what is taught –and BEING – and how it could be lived and applied in “organic life.”
Somehow many of the exchanges between Gurdjieff and students are retold, with the singular acerbic humor that Gurdjieff employed to strip the veneer of conditioned beliefs from his students and expose them to the truths of Life -including their own inevitable deaths and their petty personal prejudices. No one who took themselves seriously in his presence was spared his barbs, not even the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright, whose young wife was a student of Gurdjieff’s.
Patterson follows both Uspenskii and Gurdjieff’s personal journeys and describes the work of many of their followers, some self-appointed or anointed and others viable. One such personage is Lord John Pentland, who studied with both Uspenskii and Gurdjieff and later led the Work in the U.S., becoming the beloved teacher of the author, Dennis Lewis and also Jacob Needleman, all of whom describe him in their respective works.
What is gathered about Lord Pentland was his objective ability to impartially provide conditions for the modern students to grow and see through the conditioning of the time. While Lord Pentland was originally a student of Upsenskii, upon Uspenskii’s death Lord Pentland was sent by his widow to seek out Gurdjieff himself, and he was selected to spread the teaching to America. There is a nice story of Lord Pentland’s daughter Mary, who is asked by Gurdjieff “who is the greatest man she knows,” and when the young girl replies “her daddy,” Gurdjieff roars with approval because he deems the following of the commandment to honor your parents as a sign of great inner “being.”
From Jacob Needleman’s account it is clear the Lord Pentland was a successful businessman who kept his association with the groups private, but in fact lived the tenets of “The Fourth Way” by employing the teaching in his direct contact with both the commerce of “the world” and of course his students. The effects were far reaching.
As you read through the dialogues and studies you can’t help but see the threads of modern New Age thought as well as teachings like Advaita and Nonduality, along with the historical motifs of Theosophy and mysticism that were concurrent with Gurdjieff’s arrival on the scene.
For example Krishnamurti’s teaching galvanized Americans, and Uspenskii is asked about him at one point:
“He says a system cannot awake a man. Certainly it cannot. Mathematics cannot build a bridge. But if a bridge is built without mathematics, it collapses. If Krishnamurti keeps to this point of view–he will not be alone. Many people believe in spontaneous awakening, just be realization, and without a system and without following another man!”
Here we can sense the immensity of Gurdjieff’s contribution in its effect on Uspenskii, a man who wants scientific proof of miracles but has been opened to the limitations of science by his teacher, Gurdjieff, who brought a system of “sacred science” that bridged the heart and formatory (left brain) mind (Ego).
It was no small feat that Gurdjieff attempted to introduce this system in the “Christian” west at a time when conventional religion ran the show. But as Jacob Needleman describes in his book Lost Christianity the ‘real’ teaching that preceded the human teacher that was Jesus was in fact “scientific” and impartial in its original form. True Christianity was a sacred science which attempted to confront life in its full grandeur and immensity from a position of awe. Such an impartially scientific view sees “what is” as what “could not be otherwise (as Eckhart Tolle writes),” and all suffering is simply viewed as the result of the human mind’s inability to accept and surrender to its Greatness.
This is reminiscent of the “neters” of Egypt, where deities represented the organic reality of natural forces like the wind, sun, tide and so on, in which man plays his part naturally and without the urge to “conquer” nature. (Interested readers might look up Patterson’s DVD, “Gurdjieff in Egypt” which traces the author’s own journey to Cairo and his description of Gurdjieff’s sources and influences.)
For Gurdjieff there is indeed a notion of what is sin, in this pre-Christian context:
“If you acknowledge your sin,” Gurdjieff says, “and feel remorse of conscience for having done wrong, your sin is already forgiven. If you continue to do wrong, knowing it to be so, you commit a sin that is difficult to forgive.” (237)
This seems to be at the core of inner transformation –the capacity for some element of choice –paradoxically –within a natural framework sacred determinism shaped by greater energies and higher forces. Such “right action” of true conscience is always a reflection of being, not knowledge. This is why our modern science can create genetically modified organisms that fight nature in a way that goes against the sacred order of natural Life.
But where Gurdjieff diverges with modern Western religion is in its anthropomorphism and personalization of a “God.” God and all of the vital life forces exist for Gurdjieff but at a level beyond man’s scientific and logical comprehension. All is impersonal and impartial, even sex.
“It is not necessary to mingle the acts of sex with sentiment. It is sometimes abnormal to make them coincide. The sexual act is a function. One can regard it as external to him, although love is internal. Love is love. It has no need of sex. It can be felt for a person of the same sex, for an animal even, and the sexual function is not mixed up here. Sometimes it is normal to unite them; this corresponds to one of the aspects of love. It is easier to love this way. But, at the same time, it is then difficult to remain impartial as love demands.” (409 – Gurdjieff answering a Group question).
This goes against much of modern pop culture, psychology, conventional thought and religion and also rubs against parts of our interior conditioning— since we are committed to notions of romantic love. Gurdjieff’s “love” is seemingly an impersonal and objective love of What Is –the Great System that he brings to light and tries to convey to his students both through his lectures and perhaps more importantly, through the drama that was his own Life.
In Patterson’s enormous breadth of research and narration he truly delivers the reader into the full context of the historical period that is no more –before computers and the Internet –where these two men in fact anticipated such scientific wonders and saw the vast intelligence that is inherent in what Gurdjieff referred to as “Great Nature.”
What also comes through is the respective humanity of both Gurdjieff and Uspenskii – how they struggled intellectually and personally with one another and their own demons of alcohol and the need for the company and charms of women. Patterson describes the rift between them which deems to have been the result of Uspenskii’s “chief feature, his need for intellectual validation and recognition, and the author makes it clear that those who saw them together, and to the author himself, the level of being was palpable: Gurdjieff was the teacher and Uspenskii forever would be his most famous student.
Many kinds of reader will profit immeasurably from Patterson’s work. Interested seekers like me, who never fully committed to a “school” but were intrigued by the legend of both men and their system will gain a profound understanding of the meaning and sense of “the Work” including its historical context and the unique individuals who came in and out of the teaching. The tenor of the time is illustrated with wonderful photographs of the surroundings in early 20th Century France, Russia and the United States, and portraits the main players, along with the pithy commentary.
I am sure that direct students of the disciples of Lord Pentland’s line to Uspenskii and Gurdjieff will gain a great deal more in terms of both historical context and insight to the machinations and methodologies of their teachers and fellow students. Again this amazing biography is a work of great tribute and love by a truly devoted student and teacher.
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My Interest in Gurdjieff/Ouspensky
When I was in my twenties I worked in resort areas and one day a friend gave me a copy of The Strange Life of Ivan Osokin by P.D. Ouspensky (same man, different spelling). I was intrigued by this short novel about a seeker who meets a strange magician whom he beseeches to allow him to go back and change some of his life choices. The magician says he can send him back but it will all play out the same way—and it does.
The man goes back to his youth and confronts the same pivotal choice with a woman he loves at a train station, determines to alter the course of his life, and ultimately life conspires to make it play out as it always had. Eternal recurrence… Determinism –Fate.
I read Ouspenky’s seminal work shortly thereafter, ‘In Search of the Miraculous’ and was forever changed. In my travels I had long suspected that there were secrets of wisdom and ways to transform my consciousness, and this book told the story of Ouspenky’s own search in ashrams and the far east, only to return to his native Russia (during the days before the revolution where he encountered a strange mystical figure (the magician of Ivan Osokin).
Ouspensky (author of Search for the Miraculous) described G’s teaching and cosmology in a way that completely sold me. While I could “understand” only a fraction of the “science,” the main concept of most people behaving as automatons and unaware of their habitual conditioning struck me as truth even then. Gurdjieff also hinted that his teaching came from “Pre-Sand” Egypt –that he had found a map that showed the Sphinx at a time when the Sahara was fertile, and described the birth and death of many civilizations because of humans’ propensity to go insane and destroy each other due to influences that came far beyond Earth –from the galaxy and universe.
I would read ‘In Search for the Miraculous’ as I dealt with the mundane needs of tourists who seemed completely brainwashed and unable to enjoy their vacations unless they played rounds of golf, ate in expensive restaurants or went on expensive shopping sprees. Meanwhile the “natives” in the resorts, while mostly poverty stricken, were better adjusted and emotionally happier than my clients.
As I read the material it resonated deeply and I had the sense that it was deeply connected to the true sources of ancient wisdom and also comprehended man’s real nature and his relationship to the cosmos, and to Life, in a way modern science and my formal education failed to achieve. When I returned to the States I tried to find an esoteric school of the sort Ouspensky described, and first ran across one in San Francisco. I thought it was an amazing coincidence that I saw a young woman carrying his book at the St. Francis Hotel, and after we talked, I eagerly went to several meetings. But I learned later that there were “scouts” like her with books trolling San Francisco for prospects–and I had a ticket for Hawaii, so I left.
ASIDE: For many the teaching has the flavor of a “cult” and I am sure that many cult leaders have appropriated some of Gurdjieff’s methods and ideas; however my experience is that those with a direct connection with the teaching are sincere in their beliefs and completely private with no need to proselytize. In fact, finding and being accepted in a true “school” is still both arduous and difficult.
Fortunately there is now a great deal of material online, and books by authors like Patterson, Dennis Lewis and Jacob Needleman have made it into the mainstream. Much of my own reading and teaching stayed with me and informed my relationships and personal journey, for better or worse. When articulated, the ideas of man’s sleep and the conditioned state of most institutions are viewed as unconventional at best and often as subversive.
It is impossible to take in this teaching without coming into conflict and friction with conventional reality and society. One loses interest in much of what many people take for granted as important goals and strivings as one tries to connect with what one senses is a higher intelligence and meaning to life. But the teaching intrigued me and I bought books by Gurdjieff and other students up until recently when I fell in love with the work of Jacob Needleman, who wrote a series of books including ‘Lost Christianity’ – which echoed the teaching and made it more modern. For an introduction I would recommend reading Why Can’t We Be Good (2007) which in many ways triggered my current search for truth.
I eventually met Dr. Needleman and attended some classes and lectures and approached a group in Los Angeles. Even today the teaching is well guarded and kept separate from “ordinary life” so I went my separate way, almost as Uspenskii did with Gurdjieff. But fortunately through the current openness of the Internet much of the teaching (both real and distorted versions) is now available online.
For myself, I see so much of it reflected in my work with Michael Jeffreys, the teaching of Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie (who also calls her material “The Work”) and even the more popular psychologies of Wayne Dyer, along with people like Anthony Robbins, Werner Erhard and Deepak Chopra, among others. What I have discovered is that the teacher is important but it is the openness of the student that is paramount. For example, Gurdjieff suggested that his task was to create “the conditions for growth.” In his time this was seen as arduous labor and “intentional suffering.” For me, perhaps as a result of rationalization (my “chief feature”?) I believe that deliberate mindfulness and acute self observation need not require construction work and cleaning toilets. However, as Eckhart Tolle suggests, some personal suffering and often hitting rock bottom is most often the stimulus for a new, serious attitude toward life.
Patterson’s immense contribution is crystalizing the many diverse aspects of Gurdjieff’s contribution to humanity’s comprehension of its true nature and station in the cosmos. His stated aim was to understand the “significance and purpose of Organic Life on Earth.” To me there can be no greater goal of wisdom.
Gurdjieff anticipated, among other things, the Hubble telescope’s findings, perhaps black holes, quarks, dark matter and energy and certainly much of modern neuroscience and quantum physics. As I’ve written in previous blogs, the search for the “real self” has evaded those neuroscientists who have searched it in the neurons and synapses – it is apparently a “virtual” entity or entities that exist in the space and energy within complex networks. Perhaps Gurdjieff’s greatest admonition, however, was to accept nothing at face value or on hearsay.
Investigate for yourself. Validate or reject for yourself. Be the scientist in your own life. That is the essence of what he brought.