Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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

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The John Robert Colombo Page

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Part Two of this review:

A Grandchild’s Odyssey: Explorations in Active Mentation: Re-Remembering Gurdjieff’s Teaching is a book that seems to have not one, not two, but three titles. Again, it is a study that is carefully written and seriously argued, but the subject of the analysis is not Tales itself as much as it is of the ethos of the Work. It has none of the rhetorical flourishes or speculative flights of J.G. Bennett’s Dynamic Universe, thank goodness!

Let us start at the end of this book, its last chapter and its last paragraph – the author leaves us with a challenge, and that challenge is growth. He knows that the alchemist was concerned with the Great Work, but the Great Work to him was not that of the alchemist, the chemist, or the magician, but of the spiritual or metaphysical teacher who offers instruction on how to make use of the elements of the human body and of man’s constitution and predisposition to mechanical reactions to enhance self-awareness to lead to heightened consciousness. He concludes, “We cannot grow unless we are a part of that great impulse-of-Work …. It is truly no less than the creation of a new world that Gurdjieff has set as the Great Work of which we can become, independently, a particle.”

I think the book is an elaboration of this “particle.” As no commentator of the calibre of Azize or Ginsburg has written about Explorations, at least on an accessible website, I will devote more detail to this publication and its argument than to the other two books, but nowhere near as much as is warranted, given its scope and its density. There are thirteen chapters and their headings are descriptive of this volume’s argument and contents. Here goes:

Chapter 1: “Entirely New Principles.” 2: The Emergence of the Function of Emotion. 3: The Paradox of Hypnotism. 4: ” … an Accursed Miracle.” 5: The Duration of Being-Existence. 6: Image of Man’s Three-Brained Reality. 7: The Cosmic: Dimensions of Faith, Hope and Love. 8: Being and Becoming –Ilnosoparno. 9: The Power of Symbol. 10: “In the Beginning, When Nothing Yet Existed … ” 11: Gurdjieff’s Creation Myth. 12: Transforming the Mind – Changing the Brain. 13: The Task.

Again, Dr. Buzzell begins with a preface (called “The Author’s Journey”) in which he writes personally and persuasively about how he was introduced at the age of eighteen in 1950 to a new line of thought when a friend loaned him a copy of P.D. Ouspensky’s Tertium Organum. That led to the acquisition of books by Bennett, King, Nicoll, and a treasured copy of Beelzebub’s Tales. “Exactly why I had gone on a hunt for these Work books is impossible to express in words.” It is an observation familiar to many people.

What happened next has happened to far fewer people: “It would be twelve years before I had the great good fortune to met Irmis Popoff, my first Work tutor.” He describes how Work principles began to affect him. “All manner of ‘topsy-turvy’ notions flowed through my head, heart and body during this time, but the anchoring reality of the little understood concepts of self-observation, external considering, negative emotions and the possibility of transformation kept me reading, wondering and, in an indescribable way, hoping.”

Early on he was attracted to the workings of the brain (or the brains). “A particular interest in the development and workings of the human brain had taken form and, to this day, marks the principle way through which I try to understand a host of Work ideas.” He began to see that in his everyday life his passionate involvement with the arts was a function of the emotional centre, his medical and scientific training of his thinking centre, and his physical skills of his moving centre. Not that they were ever in balance! He corresponded with C. Daly King, author of the Oragean Version, and lunched with Louise and Dr. William Welch. He goes into some detail about benefitting from the work of Irmis Popoff of The Pinnacle, Sea Cliff, Long Island.

Two pages are devoted to his work with Mrs. Popoff and her “long thoughts.” Krishnamurti, David Bohm, J.G. Bennett, Arthur Young, and Gurdjieff’s Tales became “focal sources for reading and study.” There are passing references to triads, diagrams, octaves, and various other symbols. He established a personal relationship with Dr. Paul MacLean, head of Research, National Institute of Mental Health, who did much to popularize the concept of the “triune” brain or mind. In this effort Dr. MacLean was assisted by Carl Sagan who made these ideas the basis of his Pulitzer-prize winning book, The Dragons of Eden. Out of these influences came Man – A Three-Brained Being.

Eventually he met Annie Lou Staveley who held court at the Two Rivers Farm in Aurora, Oregon. At this time “I had begun to see allegorical parallels and possible interpretations between many of the ‘sensation-picturings’ that Gurdjieff created and aspects of brain evolution and development as reported by researchers from the 1960s onward.” Mrs. Staveley encouraged his reading of Tales with its “allegorical representations of Cosmic Law.” What follows then is some information on the All & Everything Conferences and the author’s participation as a presenter. The series of annual conferences brought the author out of his “isolation,” for he writes, “What it does make clear, is that we are in this together and that we are individually committed to share, to revise our own perspectives when necessary and come to more common understandings of fundamental Work ideas.”

It seems “the author’s journey” had largely proceeded independently of any permanent centre, institute, group, or school. Yet he was sustained in his efforts by the efforts of a number of like-minded men and women who encouraged and assisted him to sharpen his thoughts and hone his expressions in his publications and in this they “exemplify a Work group effort.” Fifth Press seems to be the result of such efforts made by many like-minded people.

The chapters of Explorations seem to me to be the transcriptions of lectures; not that they are full of transitions like “we now move to the question of,” though there are some, but that they are plainly expository and impersonal. In some ways they remind me of the elucidative prose of Colin Wilson: informative, meaningful, reasonable, and above all organized. The marvel is they are.

A reader interested in “the function of emotion,” for instance, would be well advised to read the chapter devoted to a discussion of emotions, feelings, sensations, negative emotions, higher emotions, mechanicality, etc. There is a balancing act in effect – on the one hand, the development of emotion in the human body in terms of a Darwinian-style evolution of the mammalian brain – and on the other hand, insights in chapters like “The Bokharian Derivish” in Tales.

I am unsure about the current scientific understanding of the nature of hypnotism – if there is one – but some years ago the notion was floated that hypnotism had nothing to do with cataleptic trances or even states of auto-suggestion. Instead, it has to do with complicity, an implicit agreement between hypnotist and subject to work together, a consent generated for mutual benefit. In a sense we are all hypnotized, Adam Crabtree’s “trance zero.” Ouspensky noted that Mr. Gurdjieff was familiar with the practice of hypnotism and made use of it in therapeutic sessions and probably in everyday life situations as well. A consideration of the hypnotic state leads the author to a discussion of “the properties of the organ Kundabuffer.” Readers with an interest in the comet Kondoor, the planet Anulios, Atlantis, Zoostat, the Law of Three, etc., will find much to ponder in the section devoted to hypnotism.

Some chapters (like “The Duration of Being-Existence”) are more speculative than are others (like “Image as Man’s Three-Brained Reality”) which are philosophical and therefore based in scientific and neurological fields of interest. The chapter “The Cosmic Dimensions of Faith, Hope and Love” equates these emotions respectively with the reptilian brain, the mammalian brain, and the neo-cortical brain. The latter brain is “the carrier of the impulse of love.” The longest chapter is called “Gurdjieff’s Creation Myth” and the last long chapter is “Transforming the Mind – Changing the Brain.”

Various commentators like the psychiatrist Anthony Storr have dismissed Tales for its elaborate creation myth, as earlier reviewers of Madame Blavatsky’s The Secret Doctrine have disregarded that tome’s section on “Cosmogenesis.” (Supposing it is true, where did the knowledge come from in the first place; how could anyone prove it to be true?) Probably the best “answer” to these critics are the seventy-four pages Dr. Buzzell devotes to “making sense” of the various worlds and levels of creation with their ninety-six or more laws. Buzzell writes, “Our common nature, as human, is a product of those same laws. The laws of higher worlds lie within and enliven the laws of lower worlds.” He may well be saying we know these ideas to be true because they are part of our human nature – and perhaps equally part of our inhuman nature.

“Neuroplasticity” is the word currently in use to draw attention to the power of the mind to respond and redesign itself structurally and functionally. “Neurons that spark together, join together” is a simplified version of Dr. Norman Doidge’s thesis in The Brain that Changes Itself. Dr. Buzzell does not move in this direction, popularized by the Toronto-born psychiatrist and author, but in the direction of “the possible transformation of man, living under the orders of laws of Worlds 24-48, into a Real Man …. ” This chapter is richly illustrated with colourful enneagram-like diagrams, and the prose is purposeful and high-minded, almost relentless, as it takes the reader from Symbol through “Kesdjanian Being” to “the singular Will of Endlessness.”

All in all, Explorations is a considered attempt to understand the text of Tales in light of rational discourse compatible with scientific knowledge of the known world of nature and man.


I will not discuss Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales and Other of Gurdjieff’s Writings in much detail because, as mentioned, there does exist an outline of its argument on the website. The book is dedicated “to our tutors and guides” – Jeanne de Salzmann, Alfred Orage, John G. Bennett, Annie Louis Staveley, Irmis Popoff, and Willem Nyland. There is an attempt to match the labour that Mr. Gurdjieff expended to “bury the dog deeper” with Dr. Buzzell’s labour of explicating what was written in that magnum opus – in effect, digging up the dog.

Perspectives might be described as a gloss on Tales, so it is more general than the other two publications and more suited to non-scientific minded readers who want a general sense of the sweep of the text. The author writes in the Introduction: “Through a serendipitous happening in my 30s the opportunity for group Work materialized, and the reading of The Tales slowly became such as if I were reading aloud to another person. I began to notice inklings: stirrings-of-feelings mostly, rarely with words attached to them. During recent years, those feeling-embossed inklings have undergone various degrees of crystallization and I have gradually collected a few words to express them – I hope with some clarity.”

Later in the Introduction he writes: “Gurdjieff understood that real change or inner transformation can only come about when individuals struggle to change themselves. This Work on Oneself is a truly three-brained affair, involving the active participation of thinking, feeling and bodily sensation / motion.” Dr. Buzzell describes himself as attempting to integrate the “reportorial” presentations of Ouspensky with “Gurdjieff’s mythic, allegorical and confrontational approach.” He does not do this but he does with clarity and it is unlikely that his analyses of Tales will be bettered in the future.

Readers interested in clearly expressed, extended discussions of the “enneagramatic nature” of Tales, man’s “brained nature,” buffers, mirrors, Looisos, “hydrogens,” “higher centres,” allegories and images will find ample “food for thought” (as the expression has it) in these chapters. On the second-last page, the author states, “The entirety of The Tales can be understood as a mythic journey into the inner world of each of us.”

Given the amount of single-minded, intellectual analysis, what might be absent, presumably though not necessarily through design, is what might be called any sense of group interaction. The internist in the hospital examining a patient is not expected to give prior thought to any sense of group interaction or social well-being but to keep attention focused on the work at hand. Yet a wider view, perhaps psychological or sociological in nature, might place the findings in a wider context than is attempted in the pages of Dr. Buzzell’s trio of books. (One for each of the minds!) That is the sole reservation that I have and am able to express, amid a flurry of genuine appreciation for all that has been accomplished.

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 See also Part One of this review.

John Robert Colombo, who writes irregularly for this blog-site, is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the country’s lore and literature. His most recent book is a collection of told-as-true Canadian ghost stories called Jeepers Creepers. He is an Associate, Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria University, University of Toronto. Check his website < > for further details. If you wish to received notice of future reviews and commentaries, send JRC an email: < >.



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The John Robert Colombo Page

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Keith A. Buzzell’s Trio of Current Publications 

 Part One 

The Doctor with Three Books

In front of me are three publications that have been tastefully produced by Fifth Press, an imprint based in Salt Lake City, Utah. The imprint is new to me and may well be new to the majority of the readers of this blog. The publisher’s focus is explained on its website, though even that sheds no light on why it is called the Fifth Press (rather than the Fourth, the Third, the Second, or the First Press). I guess there is a reason for the number but it eludes me! Here is the focus:

“Fifth Press was established in 2004 for the express purpose of publishing Dr. Keith A. Buzzell’s exploration of the depth of meaning of Gurdjieff’s writing. We are currently working with Will Mesa who has extensive experience plumbing the interstices of Beelzebub’s Tales. We hope we may contribute to the fabric of our work together and for all life.”

On the basis of its mission statement, Fifth Press is doing a good job in realizing its aims and objectives. Let me also add, in passing, that Dr. Will Mesa is an Cuban-born student of the Work who studied under Henri Tracol in Paris; he is a Professor of Electrical Engineering, apparently based in New York City. He once explained, “Toward the end of my fourth reading of Beelzebub’s Tales, late in 1986, it dawned on me that the book I was reading and studying was the best theoretical and experimental book I had ever studied.”

It is apparent that there are many scientifically minded and technologically trained people like Dr. Mesa and Dr. Buzzell who are “in the Work” and are making sizeable efforts “to square” what Mr. Gurdjieff wrote in Beelzebub’s Tales with contemporary scientific and technological theories and practices. This is one way to “make relevant” what the author wrote between 1924 and 1927, the text of which was translated into English and published in 1950 and subsequently reissued in a revised (and controversial) edition in 1992.

At this point it is incumbent upon me to state that if in order to understand the text of Tales as it appears in the first or the second edition I have to read it not only once, not only twice, but all of three times, once out loud, then I may make no claims to understand the book. The fact that the accuracy and authenticity of the text cannot be accepted without being challenged is not what disturbs me; after all, bookstores offer the public not one but two editions Tales as they do of James Joyce’s equally long Finnegans Wake. Indeed, relatedly, the publishing imprint Library of America was established to solve just this problem by issuing standard editions of the works by America’s leading literary authors.

In the late 1950s I was trained in the New Critical method of explication de texte, so I am wary of people who accept whatever text is at hand – pace the King James Version of the Bible – and then take it literally and erect intellectual structures like castles in Spain upon the fundament of “gospel truths.” I have observed that leaders of study groups make use of the text is largely as illustration, a passage here, a passage there, to add to the foreground or the background of the observation of interest. It is almost as if the work is too large or great to encompass as a whole.

It is obvious that Tales is a complex and demanding text – “problematic” is the word that a semiotician might use – but at the same time it meets Northrop Frye’s description of scripture as “literature plus,” so it is difficult to “get a handle on the book.” I also see it in Frye’s terms as an “anatomy,” a sum of innumerable parts that with its single structure is greater than the sum of all those parts. But all this is surmise and suggestion, as I am not going to comment on Tales. Instead, I will discuss the man who does and the way he does it – by identifying the author of these three books and by comment on a handful of his interpretations and discoveries.

There is no Wikipedia entry for Keith A. Buzzell, but I did determine the following biographical details on the Internet: “Dr. A. Keith Buzzell was born in 1932, in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied music at Bowdoin College and Boston University, and received his medical doctorate in 1960 at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. For the past 35 years, he has been a rural family physician in Fryeburg, Maine, a staff member of Bridgton Hospital and currently holds the position of medical director at the Fryeburg Health Care Center.

“Dr. Buzzell has also served as a professor of osteopathic medicine, a hospital medical director and a founder of a local hospice program. He has lectured widely on the neurophysiologic influences of television on the developing human brain and on the evolution of man’s triune brain. In 1971 Keith and his wife Marlena, met Irmis Popoff, a student of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky and the founder of the Pinnacle Group in Sea Cliff, Long Island, New York. From then until the mid-1980s they formed work groups under her supervision. Since 1988 Dr. Buzzell and Annie Lou Staveley, founder of the Two Rivers Farm in Oregon, maintained a Work relationship up to her death in 1996. Keith continues group Work in Bridgton, Maine.”

The reference to osteopathy or osteopathic medicine caught my eye because the practice is not recognized as a medical discipline in Canada. A doctor of osteopathy is not a medical doctor in any of this country’s provinces. This might be my country’s loss, for a doctor of osteopathy is recognized as a medical physician in the fifty states of the American Union. Please note that I am not in any way questioning the value of osteopathy or the credentials of Dr. Buzzell; indeed, he seems eminently qualified in the practice of medicine and has a wide range of interests suitable for his examination of the complexities of Tales. In mentioning this fact, I am clearing up a public confusion about osteopathy!

Fifth Press has issued three handsome volumes of his books. They appear in trade paperback editions, 6.5 inches wide by 9.5 inches high, printed on quality paper, glued rather than sewn to the spine. Here are the titles:

(1) Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales and Other of Gurdjieff’s Writings. The first edition is copyright 2005; xvi+228 pages. (2) A Child’s Odyssey: Explorations in Active Mentation: Re-Membering Gurdjieff’s Teaching. This first edition is copyright 2006; xiv+297 pages. (3) Man – A Three-brained Being: Resonant Aspects of Modern Science and the Gurdjieff Teaching. This edition is copyright 2007 and identified as the second edition; ii+139.

The three volumes (which have the look of a series of books) are well designed and produced. There are about forty-five lines per page of rather small type, with footnotes, glossaries, and bibliographies. The text is illustrated with charts and diagrams, some in pastel colours. My estimate is that what we have in this trio of books is close to 330,000 words.

Regular readers of Sophia Wellbeloved’s web-blog will be familiar with the reviews and commentaries of my companion columnist, Joseph Azize, a man who is extremely knowledgeable about Work-related subjects. Joseph’s detailed review of one of these books (Man – A Three-brained Being) appeared on Sept. 27, 2009, and may be read there with much benefit.

In the same vein, a fairly detailed consideration of another title (Perspectives on Beelzebub’s Tales) may be read on where it is titled “Perspectives: A Must Read for Serious Students of the Tales” and dated April 4, 2005. This review was contributed by Seymour B. Ginsburg, a respected author in his own right. The two reviews include chapter summaries but in the main they recapitulate the contents of these books chapter by chapter. While I enjoy doing the same – reprinting tables of contents and adding running commentaries on them – I will refrain from duplicating their work, concentrating instead on a couple of points of exposition.

There is one further point to make: Dr. Buzzell has been a presenter at some of the All & Everything International Humanities Conferences. The sole conference I attended was the one held in Toronto two years ago; I reported on those sessions on this web-blog. Here is what happened on April 24, 2009:


At 11:00 a.m., Keith Buzzell spoke on “Do-Re-Me of Food, Air and Impressions.” He is a seasoned presenter and with slides and one handout related the Table of Hydrogens to the various types of “food” and ultimately the “coating” of higher being bodies. There is the food that grows on the surface of the earth, that exists in the planetary atmosphere, and that comes from the sun. One of his catchy phrases was “Only life can sustain life.”

Hydrogen 768 is the food of man, but the categories are “enormous.” In fact, while I did not conduct a word-count, I assume Keith used the word “enormous” twenty-one times to describe the categories on the Table, and quite rightly. He also turned his attention to the difference between “mass” and “non-mass.” At times I thought I was attending a lecture on the Joy of Chemistry. Any dieticians in the audience would have been lost!

There was an interesting analysis of the role of proteins and how modern science is revealing the facts of digestion which are in line with what is discussed in “Tales.” We learn by analogy: “Higher hydrogens digest lower hydrogens.” The speaker suggested that there is “a way of understanding how our minds can transform our physical brains.” “The input of the three brains is the substrate of the spiritual body, the DNA of the kesdjan.”

During the discussion it was mentioned that there are ten bacteria for every cell in the human body. “We could not live without all our bacteria. We have to get along with each other.” Keith quoted a teacher who asked, “How can you expect to have extra knowledge if you don’t know ordinary knowledge.” The discussion ended with a discussion of magnetic vs. mechanical fields of influence and the human will and whether it can be suborned, followed by the differences between “body” and “centre.” It was 1:00 p.m.


Perhaps that excerpt from my notes on Dr. Buzzell’s presentation catches some of the excitement of the exposition that is characteristic of the man and his analyses. At the conference I chatted a few times with him and his lovely wife Marlena, finding them to be a professional and knowledgeable couple very dedicated to their work and the Work.


Here are some thoughts inspired by paging through Man – A Three-brained Being. I find it difficult to imagine that anyone but a student of the Work with a special interest in Tales will be drawn to read and study this work of analysis. Specifically, I find it unlikely that anyone but the most exceptional chemist, physicist, astrophysicist, physiologist, or neurologist would want to commit any amount of time and energy to assessing what use has been made here of mainstream scientific theory and practice.

In a way that is a shame because it means there is little chance that there will ever be a dialogue between orthodox scientists and unorthodox but nevertheless rigorous thinkers, so necessarily compartmentalized are the scientific disciplines in our time. I seem to recall reading in a volume of recollections of life at the Prieuré that the Harley Street physicians who were in attendance in the mid-1920s spent an evening trying to identify the Hydrogens and interpret them in light of known chemical reactions. Ouspensky had a pet phrase which he used when students attempted to think outside the system or to relate non-system matters to the system. He would say, “That’s another opera.” That’s another work.

Indeed, Ouspensky titled his book of lectures The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution (1951); in 1989 his literary executors authorized the publication of the rest of the lectures and called the publication The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution. Reading Dr. Buzzell’s current book, I have the sense that it could well be retitled The Chemistry of Man’s Possible Evolution, for it focuses on biological and chemical reactions in the production of change, movement, images, consciousness, and transformation. I will leave it to other commentators, like Joseph Azize, to delve deeper. I will leave this book, as does the author, with the opening sentences of the last paragraph:

“Our aim in this book has been to blend a scientific perspective on the physical Universe and on human biology with a perspective on the possibility of self-transformation as taught by G.I. Gurdjieff. Because it is verbal in form, it can do little more than hint, or metaphorically point toward, the broad spectrum of human experiences that must be personally lived in order to have its full meaning.”

Over all, the author writes vividly, even at times stirringly. The book opens with a lively account of how at every turn our lives have been changed by the use that has been made since 1900 of quantum mechanics and its effects. Buzzell writes, “There appears to be more than serendipity involved in the simultaneous appearance of Gurdjieff as a teacher (circa 1913) and the published insights of such men as Planck, Bohr, Einstein, Schrödinger and Hubble. Superficially, the perspectives of 20th century science and of Gurdjieff appear to be diametrically different and yet, it is our contention that both herald a startlingly new view of our Universe.” Buzzell finds many parallels between passages in Tales and later scientific discoveries. In passing he relates Tales to innovations in Modernist music and literature, subjects that will no doubt attract future historians of ideas.

With great clarity the author discusses the implications of the “three-brained” being identified with Mr. Gurdjieff and, a good forty years later, the “triune” mind discussed by the physiologist Dr. Paul MacLean. The author is certainly wrong in suggesting that Mr. Gurdjieff (or A.R. Orage, his amanuensis, redactor, translator, editor, etc.) introduced the term “mentation” because as early as 1850 the word was used to refer to “thinking” or “mental processes.” Nowhere is there any consideration of the theory that is the rival of Dr. MacLean’s, and that is the theory of the bi-cameral mind of the psychologist Julian Jaynes.

Also missing is any discussion of W.H. Sheldon’s three “somatotypes” or C.G. Jung’s four-fold typology of “body types.” Not that the author is under any obligation to discuss any of these or other matters, but it would have been interesting to see how well these conceptions could have been worked into a consideration of Tales. Yet what he sets himself the task to accomplish – to explicate Tales in light of current science – he does accomplish. The intention is not so much to vindicate the scientific endeavour or to justify the unorthodox approach and language of the text, but to delve deeper into the text.  

Dr. Buzzell does. 

Part two continues this review.

John Robert Colombo, who writes irregularly for this blog-site, is known across Canada as the Master Gatherer for his compilations of the country’s lore and literature. His most recent book is a collection of told-as-true Canadian ghost stories called Jeepers Creepers. He is an Associate, Northrop Frye Centre, Victoria University, University of Toronto. Check his website < > for further details. If you wish to received notice of future reviews and commentaries, send JRC an email: < >.


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