Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

G. I. Gurdjieff's teaching, research, books, conferences






Did Gurdjieff found the Gurdjieff Groups?
from Joseph Azize

Did Gurdjieff found the Gurdjieff groups? No, of course he didn’t. He was their inspiration, but he certainly did not found them. They were founded by Ouspensky, even down to the format of weekly group meeting and movements on week nights with days of “work” each Sunday, and regular recesses. Ouspensky had this very sensible and successful formula down pat before Gurdjieff started his regular groups in Paris during the war years, groups which he had discontinued at least 18 months before his death. Neither did Gurdjieff found the Institute which bears his name, let alone a Foundation. It is hard to imagine the word “Foundation” sitting in Gurdjieff’s mouth, unless spiced with the pepper of satire. Surely he would have sensed the “philological peculiarity” of this heavy word. Mr Adie, who was also sensitive to tones and nuances, did not find it at all corresponding to the feeling required; he much preferred the exclusively human reference of “Society”. After Gurdjieff’s death, Jeanne de Salzmann effectively found herself in charge of the bulk of Ouspensky’s English groups, which simply continued his format. To her credit, she copied that format with its “weekend works”. In fact, for all we know, Ouspensky set the pattern which Gurdjieff followed in his own war time groups, for, so far as is known, Gurdjieff had never held regular groups beforehand. Nor did Gurdjieff continue any type of group or meeting for terribly long.

There is a much overlooked part of the teaching to consider in this respect. It was disclosed in that remarkable period when Gurdjieff showed Ouspensky “the beginnings of all the methods, the beginnings of all the ideas, their links, their connections and directions” (In Search of the Miraculous, p.346), although Ouspensky takes it out of turn in his magisterial treatment. Gurdjieff told them that they took the idea of groups “too theoretically … You ought to have known more by now. There is no particular benefit in the existence of groups in themselves and there is no particular merit in belonging to groups. The benefit or usefulness of groups is determined by their success” (Search, p.232).

Note just how precisely Gurdjieff conveys his meaning: they ought to have known better after barely two years with him. It should have been staring them in the face: there is no magic in groups. They have taken the whole idea of Fourth Way groups too theoretically, they should, rather, be practical. The purpose, the aim, comes first. Assess the group. Is it successful or not?

Now if Ouspensky’s model was sensible and successful for transmitting the ideas and the methods, then like every stick, it had another end. And that end, I think, is this: one can become too dependent on a group. One can identify with them. Many people, myself included, believe that this is why Gurdjieff orphaned so many of his pupils, like Ouspensky, Orage, the de Hartmanns, the de Salzmanns and Jane Heap (although Jeanne and Jane were allowed to return).

Just as with a train, one must know when to get off. If I stay on the train after my stop, I have lost at least some of the benefit of the trip. Maybe if I wake up shortly afterwards, I can walk back to where I had wanted to go, and the trip may have saved me a great deal of time. Or maybe I have to wait only half an hour for another train back. But it is easy to imagine worse scenarios: what if I have to wait hours, days or years for another train? What if I cannot find any trains back? Or even worse: what if instead of alighting when I have reached my home station, I stay on, and make the train my home?

How does one know when to get off the train? First, and most obviously, one must know the destination. If one has no aim, it is impossible. Mr Adie insisted that one formulate one’s aim: the formulation might not be perfect, it might even be known to be imperfect, but one had to attempt it. (see George Adie: A Gurdjieff Pupil in Australia, under the indexed word “aim”). Without an aim, he insisted, everything is equal. Aim alone, he would say, can give meaning. Incidentally, St John Cassian gave exactly the same advice. The spiritual life is not a question of mandates and orders: these are all to serve its aim, an aim which each aspirant must freely choose.

So only by reference to aim can one judge how long to remain in a group. This, I think, is the deep reason why the concept of aim has been downplayed in the “new work”. That way, one never has cause to leave, one is forever searching from scratch. Jim Wyckoff, however, from the New York Foundation, advised me not to think in terms of aim (advice which I ignored even then). It was, he said, too rigid. I know that some of his pupils think in terms of “orientation” but are resistant, if not hostile, to the concept of “aim”, or at least were when I knew them. An orientation can keep you in the Foundation forever … and then there were other methods of inducing perpetual dependence, which I may come to in a later blog.

But if, as I have written elsewhere, search only has meaning because of the possibility of finding, how does one know when one has found enough in the groups? I think the answer is simple: it is when one can see and understand how to approach one’s aim. And I think all conscious aims have this in common: when one can balance the work of the three centres, one can make one’s own way towards aim. One then can and perhaps even should try in life, without a group. For as I have written in that book, the one condition a group cannot ever give you is the condition of being without a group. The group does, and by its nature must, come between the seeker and life. For a time this may be good, even desirable, and even necessary. Certainly, I tend to think that to individually acquire what we had with the Adies, I would have needed 300 years of experience. I compare it to learning a skill from someone who knows it. But an apprentice who stays an apprentice forever is a bad apprentice, and has a poor master.

I repeat, when one can bring the three centres into some balance, when one can come to a state where neither intellect, feeling or organic instinct predominate, that is, when one can act reasonably on a fairly reliable basis, despite the inevitable errors and misjudgments, then, I would say, it is time for one to strike out alone. Maybe not forever, or maybe not too far away. One may wish, for example, to contribute to the group. Such maturing, moving away, and returning is shown on the enneagram. It is the natural order of life. The parents raise the child and then the child become an adult cares for the parents in their need.

But before one returns, one must have established one’s own. What is the point of school if there is no graduation? If I am in a “school” all my life, I am institutionalized. We have to test ourselves in life. And it is not the Fourth Way if one is never alone in life.



March 23, 2008 at 8:24 am