Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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

Jim Turner shares some thoughts on Pierre Elliot of the Claymont Community

A Pupil Cannot Rise Above the Level of His Teacher

An exploration into: “… it is a law that the pupil cannot rise above the level of his teacher; he [Mr. Adie] saw it, therefore, as his task to try to make Mr. Gurdjieff present to us as best he could.”1

Perspective is interesting. It is paramount in Fourth Way studies. It derives from the Latin word “perspicere”, meaning “to see through”. Consider the following definitions: 2

a technique of depicting volumes and spatial relationship on a flat surface. Compare aerial perspective, linear perspective.

a picture employing this technique, esp. one in which it is prominent: an architect’s perspective of a house.

a visible scene, esp. one extending to a distance: vista: a perspective on the main axis of an estate.

the state of existing in space before the eye: the elevations look all right, but the building’s composition is a failure in perspective.

the state of one’s ideas, the facts known to one, etc., in having a meaning interrelationship: You have to live here a few years to see local conditions in perspective.

the faculty of seeing all the relevant data in a meaningful relationship: Your data is admirably detailed but it lack perspective.

a mental view or prospect: the dismal perspective of terminally ill patients.

To delve into the works and legacy of G.I. Gurdjieff, we need to broaden our limited perspectives. But how?

One way is through “entertaining” another person’s perspective 3. The circle of those who had direct contact with Mr. Gurdjieff is ever diminishing, but some have left firsthand accounts expositions, and privately held papers.

Recently, in an informal setting, I shared the thoughts of Pierre Elliot (1914-2005) with some people. They found the material useful, and encouraged me to think that others might benefit from Pierre’s unique perspective. For those unfamiliar with Pierre, the following short biography [4 ]is by his son, Hugh Elliot:

His aunt Winifred Beaumont introduced him to the work and ideas of G.I. Gurdjieff and P.D. Ouspensky. She was married to the scientist and philosopher, J.G. Bennett. In his formative years during the 1930’s Pierre was a frequent guest of the Ouspenskys. Pierre’s higher education and professional training were interrupted by the onset of the Second World War, which began in September 1939. Like millions of others he enlisted in the British army but his complete fluency in the French language and his familiarity with many areas of France meant that the wartime authorities were bound to send him on clandestine missions and intelligence gathering directed at Occupied France rather than into military service. He once commented to his eldest son: “When I signed up, I was told that the work I was involved in was secret. It was secret then. It is secret now.”

After the war, Pierre’s personal life gravitated once again towards the work of Ouspensky as well as J.G. Bennett at his center at Coombe Springs, an estate southwest of London. In 1947 P.D. Ouspensky’s wife revealed that Gurdjieff, (from whom her husband had broken off all contact since the early 1920’s) was still alive and living in Paris, having survived the Occupation. Margaret Anderson, the American writer, was one of the first of Gurdjieff’s students to be able to return to postwar Paris to be reunited with her teacher. Pierre, like many others, including his future wife Vivien, made frequent pilgrimages to Paris from nearby London, to study and work with the Master. The teachings that were transmitted then as well as the events of those times are well documented in the many published accounts and recollections of life with Gurdjieff. With Gurdjieff’s death in 1949 Pierre continued in close contact with J.G. Bennett. When Bennett took up the spiritual practice known as ‘Subud’, brought to the West by the Indonesian teacher Pak Subuh, Pierre became deeply involved in initiating the large numbers of people who were attracted to Subud and the Latihan exercise.

Pierre’s first marriage ended in 1952. His first wife died, leaving him with two young daughters. He then married Vivien Healey whose own family members had known and worked with the Ouspensky’s. From the birth of their first child in 1954 until 1971 Pierre devoted his energies to various professional and entrepreneurial activities, his family, maintaining a home, educating his children and living a largely ‘normal’ life. However his lifestyle and household still reflected his inner passions. Persian carpets and Indian friezes adorned whatever house the Elliot family lived in and friends and visitors were more than likely associated with Gurdjieff, Bennett or the Subud organization. Every summer he took his wife and children on extraordinary journeys to far flung corners of Europe, as yet still unspoiled by mass tourism.

In 1971 Bennett asked Pierre to help him with a five-year experiment. It was to teach the rebellious ‘sixties generation’ methods of inner transformation, based largely on the ideas of Gurdjieff and Sufi practices. An International Academy was started at Sherborne House in Gloucestershire, England and Pierre was named Assistant Director.

J.G. Bennett died on 13 December, 1974 just as he had signed an agreement to purchase a property called Claymont Court in West Virginia, in the United States. Bennett was convinced that ‘psychokinetic’ communities needed to be established in the world. His legacy and vision was thence taken up by the senior figures around him, including Pierre, Elizabeth Bennett and

The task of starting the Claymont community and school fell upon Pierre’ shoulders. For more than ten years Pierre continued the work of his teachers but he also broadened the scope of influences and invited many extraordinary teachers from other traditions to come and share their wisdom at Claymont. Such luminaries included M R Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, Reshad Field, Sheikh Muzaffer Ozak, and Sheikh Suleyman Loras of the Mevlevi dervish tradition. Sheikh Suleyman Loras conferred the title of Mevlevi Sheikh upon Pierre in 1977. In spite of his grueling schedule of duties at Claymont Pierre still managed to find time to travel the world, sharing the spirit and work of Claymont with diverse groups of interested people. He was frequently invited to speak about his work by former Claymont students and his travels took him all over the United States, to Alaska, Hawaii, the Caribbean and often back to Europe. In 1986 He and Vivien made an around-the-world journey, visiting friends, communities and seekers, in Europe, India, Nepal, Indonesia, Australia and New Zealand.

The name ‘Pierre’ means rock or stone in French. Pierre’s way of leading the community at Claymont had such strength. He seemed to be everywhere at once and no mundane task nor major decision was shirked. He loved plants and rock gardens, birds and flowers. He was a keen collector of stamps and an avid photographer. He never for a moment considered himself a teacher of the caliber of predecessors like Gurdjieff and Bennett. His demeanor was always that of a loyal lieutenant; a practiced steward of the Work.

The following excerpts are from Pierre Elliot’s 13th and final address as Director of Studies to the Annual General Meeting of the American Society for Continuous Education (formerly the Claymont Society for Continuous Education) in 1987:

Throughout time, people of great vision have been able to pass on to us some of the ways, some of the laws which govern the transformation of man. This has been done in a variety of ways, through art, music, poetry, some of the great mystical writings of all time, but chiefly through schools of various levels. It is not possible to understand these works, but through them see openings into the real world.

To read them is reading something which for most of us is beyond the comprehension of our limited linear thinking minds, and certainly most of our ability. We hear of these inner matters; we try to live by them, yet we so often stumble on the path because there is something that needs to be said that lies between the way we can approach them and what they are really there to give us. Methods and approaches may well be different but in truth what is being said is the same thing in different ways to suit the different times and the different geographical environment in which we live.

It has become apparent that many of us do not have the necessary tools (like attention of the right quality) through which we can understand what has been transmitted. If we are strictly honest with ourselves, and look back over the last years, we will most probably find that much of what we thought was a help to us towards our spiritual goa1, has in some sense failed us. We are left, perhaps fumbling in a morass of concepts of God, truth, whatever we wish to call it, knowing that it is there. And yet….

Let us come nearer home and the particular position we find ourselves in.

Update – or a Review?

One can hardly deal with the one without reference to the other. An update must imply an understanding of the past. Last year, let me remind you, the update or observations on work, which I presented, consisted mostly in running down and questioning the validity of many of our practices and concluded with an attempt to upgrade the issues which confront a man oriented towards a life which goes beyond like and dislike and dualism generally and I said: “I am speaking about the real purpose of work. The aim I am speaking about is one which does not mean either a raising of efficiency in life, nor the development of higher powers, nor even increased concentration, or better health, but a being joined, or yoked with the divine,” and concluded “we must be single-minded about our goal. The possibility of transformation is a gift to be valued above all other possessions.”

In recent years much publicity has been given to the notion of “cults” and I think quite rightly so, because there is almost imperceptibly a tendency towards sectarianism, or say identification, with the particular way one attempts to follow. I would remind you, coming closer to home, of what for me has been a guiding principle over the years. It is a mistake to equate ‘the Work’ with the name ‘Gurdjieff’ or any other name or organization, of which there are legion. For this reason, while I was in a position to do so, I advised your board to be reluctant in accepting that a Tekke, or a Buddhist temple, or a chapel, or even a particular kind of hospital or an Indian kiva, or a latihan hall be established on areas dedicated to ‘the Work’.

Gurdjieff prescribes a course of training that has received different emphases from different students, in accordance with their predispositions, inclinations and capacities, But where this training came from and where it leads is surely what is of ultimate importance to us. If Gurdjieff had a real mission it was not to deliver a string of exercises and revelations but to point to perfection.

When he was a ‘Teacher’ at the moment of real teaching, reality was the effective teacher, not the limited individual we know as Mr. G. His aim was reality. The source of his methods was reality. [5]

There is a danger that our mechanical nature – the commanding self 6 – will filter the transformative content of teachings, leaving only an outer shell, missing the heart of the matter. And, the heart of the matter is the Teaching is the One Absolute Reality: it is unitive self-disclosure. Our preconceptions, fixed beliefs, and patterns of thought are wooden bars bolting the door to understanding. We are admonished to “burn that bar”. In returning to Pierre Elliot’s Address, I ask the question: where are we heading?

In conclusion, I would return to the authentic voice of Mr. Gurdjieff as quoted in ‘Impressions’ by my old friend Robert de Ropp, who has recently died:

‘The point is to reestablish what has been lost, not to acquire anything new. This is the purpose of development. For this one must learn to discriminate between essence and personality, and to separate them. When you have learned to do this you will see what to change and how. Meantime you have only one possibility – to study.’

Once again, the authentic voice of G. Gurdjieff. ‘Begin from where you are. You are weak you are dependent you are slaves. Above all you lie to yourself and others. As long as you continue to lie you will never know the truth. If you work with others who are struggling against their own lies you may be able to learn faster. But no one can force you to see if you don’t want to and no one can force you to awaken if you prefer to sleep. Either sleep comfortably or strive realistically to awaken.’ ”

“ ‘Happy is the man who sits in his ordinary chair. A thousand times happier is the man who sits in the chair of the angels, but miserable is the man who has no chair.’ ”

It seems to turn on this striving realistically to awaken. This comes about in many wondrous ways…”

The teacher, teaching and the taught are a manifestation of a unique moment in time. It is a direct answer to the need of the moment. One may be offered opportunities if the correct space is made. “When the student is ready, the Teacher will appear.” This environment is with the aim of placing the aspiring student at their own beginning. Then, Life becomes the Teacher.




3. By using the term entertain, we are targeting the ability “to keep, hold, or maintain in the mind”. Ideas by their very nature are transformative. From the Greek idéā form, pattern, equiv. to ide- (s. of ideîn to see). An idea is “a transcendent entity that is a real pattern of which things are imperfect representations.” [See] In our study – with the right motive and intention, we are offered an opportunity to create an opening along the horizontal axis of our daily life; thereby, allowing something outside our customary perspective to enter and foster a new point from which to view.


5. copyright The Estate of Pierre Elliot

6. “The Sufis refer to the action of the mixture of primitive emotionality and irrelevant associations which bedevils outside would be observers as that of the commanding self.” Idries Shah, The Commanding Self, The Octagon Press, 1994, pg. 2.

Jim Turner is director of studies for the Ontological Research Society.


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