Sunday, April 20, 2014

Gurdjieff's system simplified in a page.

Having been a student of Gurdjieff's system (or Gurdjieff-Ouspensky) at some point, I felt compelled to write this little piece in the hopes that it could save some people a few decades of work.

Gurdjieff's system (as outlayed by Ouspensky probably most concisely, and as taken up by various other Fourth Way groups somewhat mistakenly) can be summarised as follows, with the main points as:

1. Self-observation
- which as the name implies, is simply the development of attention and concentration using the body, mind, and emotions as immediately available objects for focus.
- people spend years observing (and trying to observe) their thoughts, feelings, and sensations, though the practice in essence is simply to develop some basic degree of concentration and focus which is to be used on the next point.
- this basically serves the same purpose as any "meditation" or "awareness" practice, such as vipassana, noting, mindfulness etc.
- there is an obvious me-as-subject and it-as-object focus. Nothing esoteric here.

2. Self-remembering
- this practice trips up most people, and some spend YEARS attempting to get it, or work out what the hell Gurdjieff / Ouspensky even mean by the practice. Still others interpret it (wrongly) as "self-observation", which it is not (see above).
- the practice merely flows on from having developed the objectives in (1).
- the practice, in essence, is nothing more or less than directing the mind (or focus) onto the subjective feeling of "I"- which is the "I-thought" or "me"-as-a-separate-self feeling/thought. It is simply the focused observation and awareness of oneself that we all automatically take on from childhood, and which forms a seemingly concrete (but mistaken) identity as "I".
- generally, it is done as much as possible, throughout the day, and one needs to get a very clear and definite feel for one's own identity as "I"-as-a-separate-self or doer of actions or instigator of all other thoughts, feelings, and sensations.
- going back again and again to this feeling of "me" or "I" (as a separate individual) IS the practice of Self-remembering.
- "Self" here refers to the ego, or concept of "me" as an individual and autonomous being. (Which in Gurdjieff's system is the 'man is a machine but doesn't know it' idea).
- This serves the same function as all direct path enquiries, such as self-enquiry (vichara).
- Self willed effort and "practice" ends at this point.

3. Beyond (Seeing through the false self)
- Hopefully, at some point, the seeing happens (without any self-willed effort- and hence Gurdjieff's insistence that one cannot perform true Self-remembering), that the "I" feeling/identity is a completely assumed concept or entity in itself.
- The dropping of this assumption is the beginning (and end of assumed volitional) Liberation.

By employing (1) and later (2), in all manner of situations, and especially in times of turmoil (often intentionally introduced by Gurdjieff onto his students), it was hoped that the false self identity would eventually be seen through and done with. "Man is a machine", thus becomes completely true from the "Man Number 4" perspective.

Unfortunately, from what I've observed in Gurdjieff groups, most groups get hung up on (1), especially veering off into learning 'dances', exercises, tricks etc., and never even get to (2). For those that get to (2), the need for groups often falls away. For those in which (3) occurs, the whole game is up, and appreciation arises for this unique little system.


(PS- I've intentionally left out the huge body of Gurdjieff/Ouspensky's cosmology and related theology, as detailed somewhat in "In Search of the Miraculous", "Beelzebub's Tales to his Grandson", and other books. Although this highly complex body of theory (mostly swiped from Theosophy, Sufism, Buddhism, Kashmiri Shavism, and Gurdjieff's own imagination) is interesting, it is doubtful as to any immediate practical value which could not be explained much more simply. Certainly, the foundation of any of its usefulness would have to lie again with (1) and (2) above, without which, it would be yet another interesting informational philosophy only. It is likely that the early students of Gurdjieff's system in Russia & Europe, who were enamoured with Theosophy and occultism, needed some form of intellectual meat (or carrot), in order to even get started with the more direct practices of (1) and (2), and in this, the whole philosophy side probably has some value. However, the temptation in getting completely lost in Fourth Way concepts and philosophy seems to have been one of the chief elements in the Fourth Way's own demise, and on a more darker side, the higher than average rate (in spiritual groups anyway) for personality cults to emerge from the use or misuse of that very philosophy-- hence my insistence on side-stepping this area completely).


  1. i have always been confused as to gurdjieff's higher being bodies vs non-dualist "there is no Self to have a "higher-being-body"

    1. Thanks for the comment. It's true, that has always been a confusing point for me as well when reading through Gurdjieff's material, and his instistance, for example, in Beelzebub, to 'create' or 'coat' a higher being body. The method he proposes in Beelzebub mainly concerns 'conscious labour and intentional suffering' and bearing the manfiestations of others, which he calls 'a big thing'. The idea that man starts out with 'no soul' (but needs to create one) is prevalent throughout most Fourth Way material.
      As you point out, in contrast, the Nondualist position is generally that the personality/'I' self (ego) is an illusory thought-construct that has no permanent or real existence, and that the Self as Absolute exists only (in all and as all, including the play of phenomena).
      The only way to marry these two ideas into harmony would be to take the view that Gurdjieff's idea of needing to 'create a higher-being-body' serves as 1) a motivation to actually practice and move one out of his/her state of sleep, and 2) stabilise one's orientation in/as the Self (not the false "I"). In effect, there is no 'creation' going on, but a rediscovery and stabilising of one's being in/as being-consciousness-bliss or the real Self. This stabilising and gathering could be seen as 'creating' a higher-being-body, but not in the sense of creating something new out of nothing (which would be the tempting, but unfortunate conclusion that most Gurdjieff students would be aiming at, and still falls under the bondage of duality-- there now being a separate albeit "higher" individual floating around that is autonomous from the whole).

  2. Excellent post. I practice what John Sherman calls "the looking" , which is done in a completely non -spiritual or religious format, and done with the point of ending psychological suffering and fear we all seem to inhabit at the moment of birth.

    1. Thanks for that comment. I really like John Sherman's method of 'looking' as well, which, as he says is a simplified form of self-inquiry. I'm not totally convinced that just one look 'is enough', however, John's instructions for looking are spot on.