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Meeting with a Remarkable Man: George Ivanovic Gurdjieff

by Walter Catalano

translated from Italian by Chuck Salvo


Gurdjieff in his eighties

Gurdjieff in 1949

Gurdjieff in his 80's, a few months before his death.

One of the last pictures of Gurdjieff in 1949.


In August, 1944, an old man, with a vaguely Oriental look, went out of his apartment at 6 Rue des Colonels-Renard and crossed the road of an agitated Paris in which the German occupation was preparing to pack their bags. He was on his way to a hospital room, where a young man of little more than thirty years was dying from complications of an infection from a wound incurred from an American bombardment.

The young man's name was Luke Dietrich, he had written two novels1 and was without doubt a very gifted student; the old man was George Ivanovic Gudjieff and, from most points of view, one could call him a master. The master and student looked at each other with speaking: there was much to say. Then the master placed into the trembling hand of the dying man a gift he had brought with him: an orange.

Many intelligent men, such as the writer, utopian and philosopher, Lanza del Vasto, a friend of Dietrich, who set himself in the role of witness to the meeting, by wanting to understand too much, did not understand a simple gesture, and reported they were shocked by the petty and insensitive attitude that that gesture expressed. In reality a gesture is a mirror: Gurdjieff had constructed his apostolate on mirrors.

«Because of his reputation», wrote Fritz Peters2, «people rarely came into contact with an individual named Gurdjieff; they met instead, the image that was already created in their minds».

And because this image always broke the more obvious expectations, because the incautious postulants did not find themselves confronted by a cliché, but an authentic being, capable of giving or of taking way, but above all of disseminating consciousness, Gurdjieff was constrained often to wearing a mask, apparently fraudulent, to cover a harsh and difficult way, that the Sufis called the "the way of malamat": the way of blame:

«For example», testified Henri Tracol3, «he never hesitated to cause doubts to be raised on himself with the type of language he used, with his calculated contradictions and with his behavior, to such a point that the people around him, in particular whose who had the tendency to blindly idolize him, were finally forced to open their eyes to the chaos of their reactions».

From this, the necessity of muddying the waters, of disguising himself, of cheating on all those who examined his personal identity: almost to remember that what really counted was not his person, but the teaching which he carried. A Zen motto says: «if someone points to the moon, you must look at the moon, not the finger pointing to it».


The young Gurdjieff

Gurdjieff in 1924

A rare photograph of Gurdjieff in his youth.

Gurdjieff in 1924: recently landed in New York where he presented the Sacred Movements in public for the first time.


Therefore, whoever this certainly remarkable man was, whom many have sought to classify in several categories, but who eluded every category: author of books without being a writer, of music without being a musician, 'master of dance' by vocation, refined cook, method actor if there ever was one, Essene, Tantrist, Sufi, or «a cross between a gnostic and a dadaist» -as Henry Miller said of him- mattered little. A precise and attainable teaching exists, and this is a fact.

«Men are not men», said Gurdjieff in substance, and when he refers to man "such as he is", he always puts the word between quotes. The essential problem is reduced to this: to exit from the quotes.
The first obstacle, so fundamental, is our own illusion: the illusion of being, of having a single I, of being able to do:

«Everything happens. All that appears in the life of a man, all that is done through him, all that comes from him; all this happens [...] Man is a machine. All that he does, all his actions, his words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, habits are the result of exterior influences [...] popular movements, wars, revolutions, change of governments, everything happens. [...] Man does not love, does not desire, does not hate -everything happens.»4

To be able to do, requires first to be, and to be able to be requires first to have become conscious of one's own fundamental nonexistence. The declaration can sound essentially scandalous to a western ear, and here rises up comfortable accusations, on the part of many, to denounce a doctrine as inhuman and cruel, whereas one should rather say of "unbiased impartiality".
In Gurdjieff the concepts of benevolence and mercy are not associated with that of sweetness: one justly calls him «man of merciless compassion». An other man come not to bring peace but to bring a sword. On the other hand, the only similar thing to a definition that Gurdjieff has ever give of himself, other than "master of dance" was the of " esoteric Christian"; but he quickly added:

«Christianity says exactly this, to love all men. Impossible. At the same time it is absolutely true that it is necessary to love. But first it is necessary to be, only afterwards can one love. Unfortunately , with the passing of time, modern Christians have adopted the second half -to love, and have lost from view the first, the religion the should have preceded it. It would be stupid on the part of God to ask of men what they cannot give.»5

Our life, such as it is, is only mechanical reactions to external stimuli: what we call "I" is a confused tangle of little I's in perpetual conflict with each other. There is no unity in us: «man is plural. The name of man is legion»6. From here the necessity of constructing for himself a Center of Gravity, or Magnetic Center, as established from the Teaching, around which to agglutinate a certain number of I's and to proceed from a multiplicity to a unity. Life is given from conscious effort and from voluntary suffering. Conscious effort is attention, presence, self-remembering. Voluntary suffering is instead the abandonment of one's own certainties, one's own opinions, one's mechanical affirmation of oneself, the desire for reassurances, of intellectual comfort in the sense of oneself with its pretenses of importance and omniscience.

The effort also consists in the unmasking of negative emotions -anxiety, anger, self-pity, vanity, self-love, etc.- of the "imagination", that is, believing in what isn't so, and of "identification", a concept not dissimilar from what the Buddhists call "attachment". The goals of this effort are not moral or moralistic: one can speak with coolness and efficiency of control of the dispersion of energy in the general context of the human "machine".

It is stated internally what René Daumal calls the Holy War, our "essence" -that which is innate and 'natural' in us- grows by nourishing itself on the "personality" -that which is induced, acquired from the outside- that normally stifles it. In this war -and one can not but think of Krishna standing on his chariot beside Arjuna- all illusions are mercilessly brought down: first among these, the rather useless conviction of having "as a natural gift" a soul. Nothing is "given", everything is paid for: if such a possibility exists, then it is paid for and the price is high.

«If in a man there is something capable of resisting exterior influences, then this very something will be able to resist also the death of the physical body. [...] If in a man, there is something, this something can survive; but if there is nothing, then nothing can survive.»7

The true human condition is conscious and the recognition of this is what Gurdjieff calls «the horror of the situation», but the majority of men prefer to be flattered and to continue their sleep undisturbed. Phrases like «blessed is he who has a soul, blessed is who does not have one, but misfortune and pain to he who has one only in embryo»8 chill the easy enthusiasm of the apologists of the New Age, disturb the dispensers of the consoling and packaged balm of manuals on "how to obtain Enlightenment in 20 lessons". Such is how disagreeable it sounds to the sentimentalism of the typical man of religion; the concept that:

«To be capable of helping others, it is necessary first of all to learn to help oneself [...] When a man really sees himself as he is, helping others does not come to his mind -he is ashamed of this thought [...] Only an egoistic consciousness can help others.»9

Neither sentimentalism nor moralism are a part of the teaching:

«What is necessary is consciousness. We don't teach morals. We teach how one can find consciousness. People don't like to hear it said to themselves. They say the we don't have love, only because we don't encourage weakness and hypocrisy, but to the contrary, remove all the masks. Who desires the truth will never speak of love or of Christianity, because he knows how far he is from them.»10

The way of Gurdjieff is a religious way in the more properly etymological sense of the term: re-ligare, that is to reconnect oneself, to retie oneself. In the Gurdjieffian environment, the application of the teaching is called "the Work" The choice of the name clarifies the nature of the process that is put into action.
Ouspensky, the most noted popularizer of the ideas of Gurdjieff, called this path the "Fourth Way", as opposed to the way of the "fakir", who works only with the body; of the "monk" who works only with the emotions; and of the "yogi" who works only with the mind. These unbalanced ways can produce only "stupid saints" (who are able to do all by do not know what to do or "weak yogis" (who know what to do but cannot do it).

The Fourth way is instead the «Way of the Sly Man», who balances the work of the first three, developing harmoniously all the aspects of being and allowing the practitioner to not abandon his ordinary life to be cloistered in a monastery, but, as the Sufis say, to «be in the world but not of the world». In the writings of Gurdjieff, a Fourth Way is never really mentioned, it is spoken, rather, in the Tales of Beelzebub to his Grandson, of the ancient way based on "faith", "hope" and "love", drives of divine origin but now so distorted and debased by contemporary men, to be useless. The imaginary prophet, Ashiata Shiemash, discoverS a new way based on the "objective moral consciousness", still of divine origin but so rare in the world from being preserved uncorrupted and being therefore still 'active': such consciousness became unconscious and must therefore be reawakened.

Man is a three-centered or three-brained being; the three centers or "brains" must function in a harmonic way and not unbalanced as is the norm. Stomach (and all that is found below it), heart and head, or, if you prefer, body, emotions and intellect, should balance their functions and not interfere with each other. There is therefore no need to sacrifice or mortify any of the parts of man, but to balance and restore it to its proper sphere:

«He will deserve the name of man and will be able to count on that prepared for him from on High, only if he will have known how to acquire the gifts necessary to conserve unharmed both the wolf and the lamb that have been entrusted to him.»11

If diverse types of men, guided only from one of their centers -the intellectual, the emotional, the sensory-motor- are imprisoned in a prearranged scheme, the fourth type of man, who has balanced the three centers, can begin to taste the first glimmer of freedom.
A fundamental idea tied to this is the difference between knowledge and understanding: the first is based on a single center, usually the intellectual center; the second is tri-centered, it passes, that is, through all the faculties. What is understood -i. e. simultaneously thought, feeled and perceived- this really belongs to us; simple knowledge is instead completely instrumental and uncertain. From here the poor regard of Gurdjieff for the purely intellectual and theoretical use of the Teaching: without understanding and therefore the practice, one can only misunderstand.

To attempt to control the machine, however, it is necessary first to study its fundamentals. Everything begins from an "objectively impartial" observation of oneself. To use the words of Margaret Anderson:

«The first steps toward freedom are self-observation and 'to know oneself': the system of Gurdjieff begins with the scientific and neutral observation if oneself -with the examination of one's own body in a scientific way: first, basing oneself on the physical center; later, making observations on the intellectual center and on the emotional center. [...] The body is the only instrument with which to work. Make of it a good instrument. Do not allow it to control you. [...] Our bodies are 'fertilizer' for the soul.»12

As in every traditional discipline, even in the teaching of Gurdjieff, the basic idea is the identity between the microcosm and the macrocosm: man is the image of the universe and follows the same laws. In the complex psychology, the only opening to our exploratory possibilities, which we have barely sketched, is joined to a more complex cosmology. A historian of religion, in technical terms, would probably label it as "emanational" and "gnostic".

At the foundation of the manifestation there are two universal cosmic laws: the Law of Three (Triad) and the Law of Seven (Octave).

The first law postulates how every phenomenon results from the meeting of three different forces: scientific thought observes instead the presence of only two forces (positive and negative magnetic; male and female cells, etc.), but is ignorant of the third. Gurdjieff calls these forces:

  1. Holy Affirmation
  2. Holy Negation
  3. Holy Reconciling

or else

  1. Active or positive force
  2. Passive or negative force
  3. Neutral force

The three forces can be observed externally and internally of ourselfs, but it is really difficult to recognize them, especially the third force. In more ordinary terms, one could speak also of impulse, resistance, and reconciliation. The three follow each other in a 'chain' in which:

«the higher merges into the lower to realize the middle and so becomes either the higher for the preceding lower or the lower for the succeeding higher.»13

It is pointless to linger on the analogy with other traditions: the Christian Trinity of Fater, Son and Holy Spirit, in which, not by accident, the last is the "Paraclete", the intercessor; the Hindu Trimurti of Brahma, Shiva and Vishnu; the three Gunas of Sankhya, Rajas the dynamic principle, Tamas the static principle and the Sattva the equilibrium; Salt, Sulpher and Mercury of Alchemy; the Yin and Yang unified in the Tao; the Three Triangles of the Quabbalah; etc.

The Law of Seven, on the other hand, provides the systematization of the course of the movements of a force in unwinding the process of the completion of any phenomenon: the development of the frequency of vibrations of the force, ascending or descending passes across seven levels, stages or "notes" inclined along a harmonic scale, with two foreseeable points of stalling (exactly where it lacks the semitones between mi-fa and si-do in the major scale do, re, mi, fa, sol, la, si, do).

This law can be named the «law of discontinuity of vibrations». In the universe everything is vibration, but in every scale of this transmission, there are always two points where the vibrations slow down and call for an external shock to be able to continue in the same direction. Without an external shock the course derails and changes trajectory. This happens at the beginning (mi-fa) and at the end (si-do) of the octave. In such a way, for example, the relaxation of the effort and the deviations from the original are explained in every human undertaking: The same depraved transition takes the Sermon on the Mount to the Inquisition, or from the revolutionary 'liberty, fraternity, equality' to Napoleon and Stalin.

The law «as above as below», applies as well to the outside as to the inside of us: on the cosmic plain, the descending octave of the so called "Ray of Creation", that leads from the Absolute to the progressive development of the world, fills the first interval do-si with the divine 'Fiat' and the second fa-mi with the function of organic life on earth, the real organ of the perception of the planets; analogously on the plane of human accomplishment, the ascending octave which takes man from mechanical sleep to real being, fills the two intervals with conscious effort and voluntary suffering proposed by the Work.

The destiny of man is contained in the space between these two octaves: to be a pawn in the descending octave, to play passively one's own role of transforming energy with all living creatures, and to be reabsorbed at the end into the indifferent substrate as part of the cosmic ecology; or instead to enter by force into the ascending octave, to take part in a higher task, to be active.

In the universe everything is material, and for this reason the Great Knowledge is more materialistic than materialism itself.

In this way the circle closes ends, nothing is accidental in this system in which everyone can choose to follow the general current, manifesting a semiconscious existence and generating a level of rudimental energy that is used by the cosmos to a single level; or instead to search from being, to evolve consciously, and, applying the alchemical principle of the separation of the "dense from the subtle", to move toward the ability to receive and generate more refined energy, developing a higher service for the forces of creation. In both these cases nothing is wasted: everything in nature is "food" for something; everything is utilized.

The universal action is coordinated from the two laws and exemplified by the symbol of the Enneagram: a circle that includes an equilateral triangle intertwined with another figure with six sides. Of the nine sides that comprise it, six are obtained by dividing 1 by 7 (which produces an infinite sequence which never contains the digits 3, 6 and 9), the other from the multiples of 3 (which produces an infinite series of 3, 6, and 9). The point at which the sides touch the circle are numbered from one to nine. The circles symbolizes zero, the hermetic serpent that bites its tail: iin reality it is not a circle but a spiral, because the symbol is not static but dynamic. The Enneagram represents every process that maintains itself by self-renewal: for example, life. That's why, according to Gurdjieff, it is the «perpetual motion and also the philosopher's stone of alchemists».

All this once said can still be forgotten: it is a question now of rediscovering it, not because it is explained to us or we read it somewhere, but because we verify it with our experience. The teaching in reality is only practical and is transmitted exclusively orally or by means of direct examples that avoid words. All that Gurdjieff has written is terribly precise, but so analogical that only personal understanding, born from experience, can guide the seeker to the heart of the teaching. Whoever limits himself to books will obtain very little. «If you are not given a critical spirit, you presence here is futile», in other words we must find the way of exercising our good sense in the effective friction with life and not referring to schemes and abstract concepts.

As much as he has often been interpreted with amusement and undeniable identification, especially in his initial Russian period, in the role of 'magician' or 'shaman', Gurdjieff has always shown a certain bored mistrust towards the occultists and «the initiates of new emissions», as he addressed it mockingly; 'magic' did not interest him: the real problem is waking up, not to make sleep more comfortable. His position recalls instead the rigorous examination and rough purity of certain Zen teachings. On this proposition Fritz Peters remembers:

«Many years ago, Aleister Crowley, who had made a name for himself in England as 'magician' and who boasted, among other things, of having hung his pregnant wife by the thumbs in the attempt to give birth to a monstrous being, presented himself at Fontainebleau without being invited. Crowley was clearly convinced that Gufdjieff was a 'black magician' and the evident purpose of his visit was to challenge him to a sort of duel of magic. The meeting turned out to be a disappointment since Gurdjieff, although he did not deny knowledge of certain powers that could be called 'magical', refused to make any such demonstration. At his turn, Mr. Crowley also refused to 'reveal' his powers; therefore, to the great disappointment of those present, they were not able to witness a supernatural feat. What's more, Mr. Crowley went away with the impression that Gurdjieff was a charlatan or a mediocre sorcerer».

One does not try to find, therefore, anything arcane, but rather an attention different from that which, at a superficial glance, can appear banal: «I teach that when it rains, the sidewalk get wet», the teacher always repeated and, with the same typical irony, «I have some of the best leather to sell to those who want to make the best shoes».

Moreover, according to Gudjieff, the individual quest is not fruitful. The distinctive mare of his method is 'the group':

«A man alone can do nothing. [...] You are in prison. All that you desire, if you are intelligent, is escape. But how to escape? It is necessary to dig a tunnel under the wall, but a man alone can do nothing; let's suppose however that there are ten or twenty men: if they work in turns and cover for each other, they can complete the tunnel and escape».

In this way the work was transmitted across groups of students that, from the agreements and the conflicts of their various personalities, knew how to draw out the sap to grow their individual branch of the same tree.

The groups, in the "orthodox" tradition, which come unchanged directly from the meetings at the Rue des Colonel-Renard, meet regularly. The leader of the group assigns interior exercises for the week, the members can ask questions or report on their experiences of the preceding days and the more important works of Gurdjieff or his direct students are read and commented on. Generally, the meeting begins with a brief moment of silence, called "rappel", that is remembering oneself, that is the collective repetition of the "sitting meditation" (carried out with a position and in a manner almost analogous to the classical sitting of Zazen) that every member of the group practices individually every morning. Other activities might include the study of the Movements or Sacred Dance, listening to the musical compositions of Gurdjieff and silent manual labor, the customary arts and crafts such as weaving, ceramics, carpentry, gardening, and so on. Some rituals very strictly tied to the figure of the teacher -"Toast to the Idiots", held during convivial reunions, with abundant alcoholic drinks- were totally abandoned after the death of Gurdjieff».

For the "orthodox" tradition we mean those transmissions from Gurdjieff himself to his students, reunited after his death under the organizational direction of Madame Jeanne de Salzmann, in the "Gurdjieff Foundation", which has is principal seats in Paris, London and New York. Only this line assures the fidelity to the original teachings. The others, from the followers of Ouspensky after his estrangement from the master, to the numerous factions, gurdjieffian in name but non in fact, distorted the ideas always in a serious way, tending at times to create "cults" of the types of Scientology, dangerous for the health and the wallet of the incautious seeker.
As a warning, we can only say that, if one is looking to make contact with a serious group, the only way to get in is to know someone who is already in. No truly esoteric group would put ads in newspapers or bookmarks, imprinted on fine paper, inside Gurdjieffian books at the bookstore. One should always think about this not so minor detail, and remember the advice of the ancients: caveat emptor!

To conclude this brief and necessarily incomplete introduction, let us turn to the same picture with which we opened: let's turn to the room in which agonized Luc Dietrich, in which two men looked each other in the eyes. If we look for miracles, perhaps we can find them at Lourdes, but not here. Nothing miraculous. Only a simple presence: someone who in silence comes into our room and in silence hands us an orange.


Papa Gurdjieff

Papa Gurdjieff in Paris in his last years. The people of his neighborhood called him affectionately "Monsieur Bon bon" ('Mr. Candy')for his habit of giving handfuls of candy to all the children.



1- Luc Dietrich (1913-1944), writer, poet, photographer, and intimate friend of René Daumal and Lanza del Vasto. Since 1938 he took part in the groups organized by Jeanne de Salzmann on Gurdjieff's behalf . His two published novels are: Le Bonheur des tristes e L'Apprentissage de la Ville. back to text ^

2- From: Fritz Peters, Boyhood with Gurdjieff , (London 1984). back to text ^

3- From: Henri Tracol, The Taste for Things That Are True, Element Books Limited, Shaftesbury 1994. back to text ^

4- From: P. D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous (New York, 1949). back to text ^

5- Citation told in: Jacob Needleman, Lost Christianity, Doubelday, N.Y, 1980. back to text ^

6- From: P. D: Ouspensky, op. cit. back to text ^

7- From: Ouspensky, op. cit. (pag. 39). back to text ^

8- Aphorism n. 29 in: G.I. Gurdjieff, Views from the real world, (London, 1974). back to text ^

9- From: Ouspensky, op. cit. back to text ^

10- From: Ouspensky, op cit. back to text ^

11- From: G. I. Gurdjieff, Meetings with Remarkable Men, (London and New York, 1963) back to text ^

12- From: Margaret Anderson, The Unknowable Gurdjieff, (London 1962). back to text ^

13- From: G. I. Gurdjieff, Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson, (London and New York, 1950). back to text ^


Walter Catalano

translated from Italian by Chuck Salvo



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Articolo inserito in data: giovedì, 2 marzo 2000.

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