Gurdjieff's teaching: for scholars and practitioners

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


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An interest in the interaction of scholarship and personal experience, came up during and after a conference I’ve been to recently at the University of Kent, Canterbury.

At the conference the interest in how to effect an interaction between scholarship and personal experience was expressed as the necessity for a ‘bridge’ between the practice and the academic exploration of esoteric, spiritual, or religious teachings which explore and focus on the transformations of the self. These transformations may be seen in a variety of terms, among them: consciousness, physical materiality, day to day functioning, aims,values and duties

After I got back I talked with a friend of mine, Professor Robert Louis Abrahamson of University of Maryland University College, who suggested the word ‘ainoma’ as one that might be useful in this context. As I understood it this is an architectural term, meaning the ‘middle room’ see Buddhist architecture in the Edo period (1600-1868) (

The shrine’s three main buildings – the honden (main hall), the ainoma (middle room) and the haiden (oratory hall) – are again linked to each other by covered corridors. The ainoma may also be a separate space outside but in between two other places. It differs from a path or bridge which has a sole or major function to connect one space with another, and which is traveled through, because the ainoma is a separate place, of value in itself, not necessarily a means or place of transit. (See below for note on ‘between’).

Find out more and see images via an Ainoma Google images search. I haven’t uploded images of ainomas here as the Japanese sites request this should not be done.

Robert Louis also suggested that this is a word which can be used to express being in a contemplative state between two other states. Perhaps without the need or desire to go into either of them. This is referred to at

where Joel Upton, Professor of Art History, Amherst College at the ‘2010 Mindfulness in Education Conference’, Cambridge MA offers:

‘an exemplary model that draws on meditative space as one might find it in Japan generally and in the sub-temple of Daisen-in at Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. Although I will give a Japanese name, “ainoma,” to the conceptual reality that informs this space, I will relate this particular visualization of contemplation to the more familiar language of Simone Weil and Henry David Thoreau.”‘

this is in answer to the question of how the state of contemplation which is:

‘essentially [an] interior and private reality might be made explicitly public for others to see and perhaps emulate. With this question in mind, my presentation will attempt to visualize contemplation as one way to exteriorize and communicate this interior reality.’

My own academic area of interest is the teaching of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, in which he entangled his pupils so that they were pulled into the world as he defined it. In the process they lost touch with their usual, mundane view life, its aim and purposes as understood by those outside the teaching. 

This was not a teaching which led pupils from one state to another as though over a bridge which connected or made sense of both ‘world views’, the one he offered his pupils and the ‘world view’ they had left’. They discovered this when after a period of time with him he either sent them away individually or sometimes disbanded the whole group he was teaching; and he did this consistently throughout his recorded teaching years. (This does not happen in the form of the teaching carried out today, where pupils are not encouraged to leave and may stay for the duration of their lives.)

The pupil thus abandoned found him or herself shocked into an unexpected and most unenviable place, being unable to return to the view of the world they had before the teaching, and also unable to return to Gurdjieff’s teaching because they had been ejected from it.

Here the pupil has fallen into the chasm between two apparently irreconcilable experiences and must learn to deal with the ensuing chaos. There are some choices: to find an alternative teacher or teaching; to forget the teaching as far as possible; or by allowing or forming some kind of reconciliation or new order, one not wholly dependent on either the world view held previously or the one experienced with Gurdjieff. 



1. In English we use the one word ‘between’ to signify both connection and separation. When I was learning Italian I was surprised to find that they have two words, one for ‘the path between your house and our house’ ( a connection), and the other for ‘the wall between your house and our house’ ( a separation). Then I remembered that we also used to have two words, now only one remains in common usage in the expression ‘betwixt and between’. Defined online as ‘an intermediate, indecisive, or middle position’, the word betwixt is related according to the Collins online dictionary as ‘Old High German zwiski two each. I wonder if these words did originally have these small but significantly different meanings.


The Gurdjieff pupil expelled from the teaching finds him or herself in chaos.

Chaos (Greek χάος khaos) refers to the formless or void state preceding the creation of the universe or cosmos in the Greek creation myths, more specifically the initial “gap” created by the original separation of heaven and earth.

(Wikipedia Chaos: cosmogany)

Being in this formless ‘gap’ prior to creation places the pupil who can endure it in the role of hero.

This image of Prometheus shows the unenviable state of the suffering hero.

Prometheus: painted 1868 by Gustave Moreau

The same term has also been extended to parallel concepts in the religions of the Ancient Near East. The motif of chaoskampf (German for “struggle against chaos”) is ubiquitous in these myths, depicting a battle of a culture hero deity with a chaos monster, often in the shape of a serpent or dragon. (Wikipedia as above) 

and is also represented in Christian story and imagery and here St George is about to be triumphant.

St. George and the Dragon painted by Paolo Uccello (1395-1475)

Ainoma – In the Middle

Being in ‘the gap’, ‘in between’ or ‘in the middle’ is not necessarily easy. Who wants to be ‘caught in the middle’, or ‘in between the devil and the deep blue sea’?

The concept of ‘the middle’ expressed in terms of place, or size as:

the middle point of a line

medium or average size

is not usually thought of as exciting in a competitive culture where being ‘in front’, or ‘at the top’, being ‘best’ or ‘biggest’ equates with the most valued, most important in relation to personal status: achievement, power, wealth.

Notions of centrality, ‘being in the midst’ of being in the centre, central,

equally distant from the extremes or outer limits

can seem more favourable. Although both of these also assume some kind of order based on comparative position in relationship. Being the centre of attention on the stage in a theatre is usually good, but being the centre of attention if you are sitting in seat 12 row V of the audience is probably not.

In a linear diagram

being in the middle

——————– X ——————–

can represent the middle in terms of place

——————– X ——————–

————back there —————- here ———————over there——-

or in terms of time

——————– X ——————–

—————past ———————now——————– future——-

and can express something about ‘being present’ ‘ being in the moment’

and this state of being is simultaneously one of

experiencing being ‘in the midst’ the ainoma, of being the bridge which is both connected to and separated from both past and future, the place where I was and the place where I will be,and being in the void, in the chasm, the chaos out of which new order and new forms, arise.

Experience of the chasm is a reminder of the void, a vivid experience of death while still being alive. This is expressed in the Christian funeral service as ‘in the midst of life we are in death’. Gurdjieff echoed the Christian teaching on remembrance of death at the end of Beelzebub’s Tales To His Grandson (1949: 1183).

The exiled Gurdjieff pupil shocked into an awareness of being in the midst of the chasm or void will have temporarily have lost sight of the creative aspect of the void and also of being both in the middle of a bridge, and also of being the bridge itself. 

The above thoughts about the ainoma are expressed within an interest in the relationship between the scholar and the practitioner of esoteric teachings. Being in the midst of these two disciplines can be helpful.


More on the Middle

After posting the above yesterday I remembered that Dante starts The Divine Comedy with the lines:

‘Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita

mi ritrovai per una selva oscura,

ché la diritta via era smarrita.’

I found the following translations on:

Literally translated as:

In the middle of the journey of our life

I found myself in a dark wood,

for the straight way was lost

also translated as:

Midway in the journey of our life

I came to myself in a dark wood,

for the straight way was lost.

I know from my time in Italy that mezzo may be translated variously; offers for contemporary Italian:

half, middle; means; mean; centre, center, midst; equipment, instrumentality; medium, vehicle.

Then I remembered that  a couple of days ago, I heard A. N Wilson, author of the just published Dante in Love, on a radio programme saying that the first line stresses ‘in the middle of our life’ ‘nostra vita’ rather than in the middle of my life.

So my understanding of the line is not ‘at the mid-point of a personal life’, but ‘whilst living’ or to use P. G. Wodehouse’s phrase ‘in amongst’ living. So here maybe midst might be a better translation giving ‘in the midst of (the journey of) our life’.


The Chasm as Chaos, ‘Void’ or ‘Gap’ 

The chasm over which a bridge is to be desired and, perhaps from then on ignored, can be defined as in the above Wikipedia reference, as chaos, ‘the gap between heaven and earth’ the chaos into which mostly we do not wish to plunge.  The desire expressed by many practitioners of esotericism for a bridge to connect scholars and practitioners is often expressed in a way that suggests that once a decent bridge is built the chasm will be negated, it will somehow cease to exist.

This thinking is exemplified in large American cities where bridges carry people in cars above ‘undesirable areas’ thought of in terms of chaos: an underworld of poverty, crime and violence. Tom Wolfe’s novel The Bonfire of the Vanities explores the fear and horror of an accidental falling into just such a chaos.  

These city bridges make a connection between one ‘acceptable and desired’ place and another by disconnecting the ‘unacceptable, undesired’ place. However, the bridge and the chasm/chaos are interdependent. If there were no chasm there would be no need for a bridge. As Andrew Rawlinson (see note below)expressed it to me as part of an extremely useful conversation on the subject: ‘in Jungian terms if the bridge is the light, the chasm in the shadow, it’s not possible to have one without the other.’ 

The shadow side of the bridge is not ignored in myth and story, it is revealed in narrative metaphor as: the bridge that leads from life to death, the bridge that once crossed cannot be recrossed, or the perilous and dangerous bridge over which no confident crossing can be promised, think of Lancelot’s  Sword Bridge over which he crawled cutting his hands and feet.

Note: Dr Andrew Rawlinson, who lectured in Buddhism at the Universities of Lancaster, England and as visiting professor at the University of California at Berkeley and the University of California at Santa Barbara, is the author of The Book of Enlightened Masters:Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions.


Order – Chaos – Order

(it will get worse before it gets better)

There does always seem to be a period of chaos between the old order and the new. In political revolutionary terms the overthrow of state or ruling power leads eventually to a new order, but until then, forces of terror, disorder and chaos rule. On a micro domestic scale sorting out cupboards or bookshelves creates a familiar period of disorder once everything has been take from its accustomed place and before the new place is found the new order created. This is understood and expressed colloquially as: ‘it will get worse before it gets better’. It’s probably the recognition of the oncoming chaos that diminishes the embrace or provocation of change in personal circumstances, even in cases where to an outsider change is clearly necessary. Change always demands some degree of an heroic and combative approach, even if only when taking on clearing out the garage.


The Practitioner v Scholar

The practitioner v scholar combat is one contemporary aspect of the larger Religion v Science dispute, and the respective modes of classification and resulting orders reflect similar differences. In popular understanding these probably reduce to Rational v Irrational, or Evidence and Proof Necessary v Evidence and Proof not Possible.

However, in one definition of practice and processes, practitioners of esoteric disciplines create order out of chaos by collecting sets of similarities, and by using these similarities, or correspondences, to define how separate aspects of experience are connected to others, thus creating a web of inter-connection. While contemporary scientific scholars use an Aristotelian classification system and make clarifying definitions which extract the subject or object of inquiry from all others by defining its differences.

Thus, though engaged in quite different enterprises, which can enhance and be of value to one another, neither the esotericists who practice the art of joining, and value making connections, nor the contemporary scientists who value separations seem to be interested in establishing a bridge. But the practitioner scholars who are in fact ‘in the middle’, being neither exclusively a practitioner nor a scholar do express a wish for a bridge. Why?

One way of Considering This 

(not the only one)

One way of considering the situation may relate to the practitioner-scholars’ discomfort at finding themselves ‘in the middle’ of the chasm and ‘in between’ what could be experienced as warring parties. Far from receiving the respect and acceptance they desire practitioner-scholars may find themselves engaged in defensive discussions with scholars who have no interest in esoteric studies or practice, while their fellow practitioners may regard academic study with equal disinterest or disdain.

Under these circumstances the notion of a bridge is attractive to esoteric practitioner-scholars. The general view that I heard expressed at the conference was that a bridge would aid mutual understanding, overcome objection, and that respect can replace scorn. Everyone would benefit from changed perspectives.

However, the benefits of these changes are not necessarily welcomed or valued because the suggested changes subvert established authority, and, as we have already seen, change is a chaos inducing experience, and, as anyone who has tried to explain something to a three year-old in a supermarket knows, not always easy or possible to accomplish. 

Change has to be desired by both parties and at the moment these changes are not desired, by either the universities or by esoteric or occult teachings all of which have their own forms of institution created to promote their own power-structures, stability, and continuance. Asking for major changes in outlook or aim where none is felt or asked for makes the practitioner-scholars revolutionary and chaos promoting agents. This suggests that a bridge, if it were contemplated at all, would be looked upon as a draw bridge which can be raised to protect from destructive invasion of territory. Bridges are of course destroyed in times of war.

The following quotation, sent to me by Andrew Rawlinson, comes from James Hillman’s The Soul’s Code: On Character and Calling, 1997. p 109, and expresses the fear of unwanted connections between rational and irrational realms, exemplified literally by the destruction of bridges in war time.

The rationalized mind prefers the chasm to the bridge; it likes the cut that separates the realms.”

The day after I received this quotation I heard an excellent example of a rationalized mind preferring the chasm, given by Professor Brian Cox during his televised lecture on quantum theory at the Royal Institution of Great Britain. During this he says that quantum theory can seem odd, but that this is not a license to talk utter drivel, adding that quantum theory does not allow mystical healing, ESP or any other new age manifestation, and it is not difficult to feel empathy for him. He goes on to say that we must remember that physics is done by physicists and not by people with star signs tattooed on their bottom. So I think we could safely say this is as good an example as we could get of Hillman’s rationalized mind, which in this case is using ridicule to ensure a safe space between the speaker and those who drivel.

There are, of course, similar examples of ridicule from what might be termed the irrationalised side of the chasm and when I’ve located a really good example I’ll post it here. 

The dangers of actively promoting change are referred to by Nigel Rogers and Mel Thompson (Philosophers Behaving Badly, 2005. p.9). They remind us that Socrates:

‘spent his life roaming the streets of Athens trying to persuade fellow Athenians to examine their lives and so change them. But he is hardly an encouraging example. The Athenians finally tired of his constant questioning and voted to put him to death in 399 BC. Scarred by Socrates’ fate, philosophers led by Plato, retreated into academe – Plato founded the very first academy deliberately outside the city – determined to have nothing to do with contemporary politics.’

Their book gives valuable evidence of the ‘follies of the wise’ (7), the chasm between great philosophers’ thinking and their own ‘behaviour, sometimes bad, sometimes sad, occasionally downright mad’ (14). And this helps the reader into a beneficial ainoma, or middle position between ‘sanctification’ on one hand and dismissal of the philosophers’ outstanding contributions on the other.

Were the philosophers still living it is likely there would would be a society for reforming them, leading them towards lives that agree more fully with the accepted and approved behaviours of the day.

But as they are not still living the ainoma in this instance may be reached by the reader, who need not attempt to change their evaluation of either the philosophers’ established wisdom nor of their newly revealed follies. Although the possibility remains for the philosophers to be despised what useful purpose would be served by doing so?

As a ‘for now’ last word on the possibility of a finding or making a bridge over the chasm I would like to recommend looking at the following Ted Talk:


Jill Bolte Taylor speaking at TED on February 27, 2008

She had ‘a research opportunity few brain scientists would wish for: She had a massive stroke, and watched as her brain functions — motion, speech, self-awareness — shut down one by one. An astonishing story.’

‘Dr Jill Bolte Taylor (born 1959 in Louisville, Kentucky) is a neuroanatomist who specializes in the postmortem investigation of the human brain. She is affiliated with the Indiana University School of Medicine and is the national spokesperson for the Harvard Brain Tissue Resource Center. Her own personal experience with a massive stroke, experienced in 1996 at age 37, and her subsequent eight-year recovery, has informed her work as a scientist and speaker.’


The description she gives of her own experience suggests to me that a good place to find or build a bridge is between the left and right sides of the brain.






July 5, 2011 at 8:27 am

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