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Encountering Gurdjieff

John Anthony West

My first (alas! posthumous) encounter with the remarkable Mr. Gurdjieff took place on the Balearic Island of Ibiza in the early 1960’s. A casual artist friend, responding to my newfound enthusiasm for astrology, gave me Rodney Collin’s Theory of Celestial Influence to read. Despite certain misgivings about the incessant harping about ‘schools’ I was eager to hear more, and my shrewd and tactful friend thereafter carefully spoon-fed me selected titles –Ouspensky, Nicoll, Bennett, Kenneth Walker– until he deemed me ready for the man himself.

For a moment it was touch and go.

Reading, in the first few introductory sentences to Beelezebub, that I was about to be obliged to disavow everything I had ever thought, believed, admired, valued and even wrote, I was about to hurl this arrogant book against the wall … when I realized that this was precisely Gurdjieff’s intention. Knowing, as an already substantially published writer, how difficult it is to elicit a specific, intended response from readers in twenty pages of prose, or 200 pages for that matter, I was caught up in admiration for a man who could get me that angry in just two sentences.

With a big inner smile, and nod of admiration, I read on …and on … and on …

Via my extensive prior reading I was already predisposed to the cosmology, philosophy, psychology, the scrambled and revised history and much of the rest. I was unprepared for the sweep of his humor, and the carefully convoluted style that obliged my brain to sweat in entirely new ways.

But what attracted me most was that Gurdjieff was the first human being I had ever encountered (albeit posthumously) as utterly contemptuous of Western Civilization as I was. What I called ‘The Lunatic Asylum’ he called ‘The Pain Factory’. We were talking the same language. The big difference, the huge difference between us, from my thirty-year-old point of view, (apart from his obvious comprehensive knowledge and understanding) was that he knew how to live successfully within the asylum, and I did not. And it was this I had to learn — or else!

Even so, it took a few more years of inner wrestling to get convinced that this knowledge could not be acquired on my own (I was accustomed to doing things on my own, hated ‘groups’, refused to ask for help from anyone, even when I needed help). And so I left my sunny, but now tourist-and-hippie infested island and off I went to London to join the Foundation, then under the leadership of Mme. Lannes.

Voracious reading and research along with intensive inner work now prepared me for the ‘symbolist’ interpretation of ancient Egypt developed by R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz in his massive, three volume work Le Temple de’ l’Homme (The Temple of Man) then only in French. This set the stage for the next thirty years of writing.

I was already convinced that Gurdjieff had somewhere accessed otherwise hidden sources of an almost forgotten doctrine, and presented it –on a take it or leave it basis–in a form compatible to contemporary understanding. Schwaller proved in magisterial fashion that it had once existed in coherent and recoverable form in ancient Egypt (and by extension, in other ancient, but presently vitiated or degenerate doctrines as well).

Initially, I thought that there had to be some formal connection between Gurdjieff and Schwaller. Both were living in France around the same time; Gurdjieff of course was well known, indeed notorious, in the Paris of the 20’s. I thought that Gurdjieff had perhaps given Schwaller the task of actually documenting the great doctrine. But, no; working closely with Schwaller’s step-daughter, Lucie Lamy, convinced me that there was no formal connection. Schwaller had come to his almost identical interpretation entirely on his own. My self-imposed task now became making Schwaller’s difficult, sometimes near-impenetrable work accessible to a wider audience.

But after seven years in the Foundation, it was time, with no little regret, to leave it. The experience had been invaluable, but it now seemed to me that what was called The Foundation for the Study of the Harmonious Development of Man was some 90% Foundation and just 10% Harmonious Development. The old Bohemian anarchist within me re-asserted himself. Even so, I left with no little regret.

I had learned what I had learned. It was not what I’d hoped to learn. I was not enlightened. I had not met God, though it seemed to me sometimes that some of his minions were guiding me in some way. I had not found a way to immunize myself against negative emotions, or to stop doting on my suffering (hard to acknowledge that I or anyone else should engage in so fruitless an exercise, but so it was, and is…). I was still much too recognizable to people who knew me before — I was supposed to be walking around rayed in light, an obvious beacon to attract others. It was nothing like that. The changes, unapparent to others, but not so to me, were internal, minuscule. An incredible amount of work had gone into them, yet there was little to show. On the other hand, however minuscule, that difference was all the difference in the world. I was not even very ‘conscious’, but I was in some sense difficult to define, responsible. It was no longer that easy to press my buttons –and when they did get pressed, it was my responsibility, not ‘theirs’. I could function within the asylum!

Still, it was time to leave the formal Foundation and carry on as best as I could on my own.

Now, twenty five years later, it is still the Gurdjieff work that sustains, informs, and makes it possible to not just cope but move ahead.

The lessons learned and other reflections will eventually find their way into a book I’m currently working on, but one musing seems worth passing on now.

While in the Foundation, one of its most irritating characteristics was the incessant gossip, and the internal friction between the various ‘schools’ all claiming to be the inheritors of the ‘true’ Work. The Foundation-ites disparaged the Bennett people, and vice-versa while the various splinter groups in America, England and Paris were all increasingly at odds with each other. Twenty five years later, that situation has become worse, rather than better, as the splinter groups themselves split into toothpicks and then matches.

It seemed so unnecessary and I, like so many, wondered why it had to be like this. I had long since given up as futile trying to pass judgment on Gurdjieff himself. I did not care if he was Man 4, 4.2, 5, 6 or 7. No one, it seemed to me, had a monopoly or lock on what this extraordinary man intended. My own understanding of the hierarchical principle convinced me that the lower is in no position to pass judgment on the higher. But the more I read (and keep on reading) of the experiences of those who had had close contact with him, the more I began to think that just perhaps the friction itself was a part of the grand plan. And it is this that I offer up for what it may be worth.

The doctrine and even more important, the practice, has been given out to the world. There can be no doubt that Gurdjieff had gone to almost superhuman lengths to avoid personal gurufication or canonization by his followers. It’s hard to imagine that this was anything but intentional. So, it seems to me just possible, that along analogous lines, he took similar pains to ensure that no one person, no single group, could successfully turn the Work into an orthodoxy, which by definition means stasis, or Death. G’s (alleged) famous last words, ‘I’ve left you all in a fine pickle’ perhaps refers to that, or something like that.

We were on our own. And so we are today — intentional or not.

The fractious, competing and contentious groups ensure –until or unless someone of Gurdjieffian stature appears to pull it all together, (which may not be a good thing anyhow)– that unorthodoxy will prevail.

Since, from long study and much experience, it still seems to me that the Work is, if not the only, then at least the most effective way to learn to live with some degree of certainty within the degenerate, chaotic but yet wildly proliferating forces of The Church of Progress (whose Jesuits are Science, Education and the Media). Our job is to get on with that Work as best we can.

I have my own ideas as to what constitutes the ‘real’ work and what is misguided, even perverted. But it seems to me that (David Kherdian and I have discussed this at length) if ‘the Terror of the Situation’ is more-or-less accurately perceived, and the personal intention is more-or-less pure and focused, the Work, in that special Gurdjieffian sense, will produce real results, regardless. Not much else will.

Note: If this is your first encounter with Gurdjieff and his work and you’d like to know more. Do NOT start off reading unadulterated original Gurdjieff; it’s like taking your first driving lesson in a Ferrari. Start with P.D. Ouspensky’s IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS, a brilliant and accessible exposition of Gurdjieff, the man, and his method.

John Anthony West

John Anthony West

JOHN ANTHONY WEST, rogue Egyptologist and mystic-in-skeptic's clothing has been studying and writing about ancient Egypt for four decades. He is the foremost exponent of the 'Symbolist' school of Egyptology--which sees (and demonstrates) an ancient sacred science where modern academics see mainly superstition. West's work redating the Great Sphinx of Giza via geology, (proving that it must be at least 10,000 years old or older) was the subject of a 1993 NBC Special, The Mystery of the Sphinx, hosted by Charlton Heston. Viewed by 30,000,000 people, this was one of the most successful documentaries ever shown, and it has escalated into a heated international scholarly controversy. West won an Emmy in 1993 for Best Research for his work on the video and the show itself was one of four nominated for Best Documentary Program. The BBC subsequently produced its own version of the show for its prestigious and popular science series, Timewatch. Retitled Age of the Sphinx, the show recorded the second highest ratings of any Timewatch episode and generated still further controversy in the English press. West's non-fiction books include Serpent in the Sky: The High Wisdom of Ancient Egypt (a detailed examination of the symbolist interpretation of Egypt), The Traveler's Key to Ancient Egypt, and The Case for Astrology. He has also written a book of short stories, a novel, plays, and film scripts. His essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, Conde Nast's Traveler, and many other general interest and specialized publications in America and abroad. He hopes to be traveling to Egypt in the summer of 2008 with a panel of independent geologists --some supporting, some opposed to his water-weathering hypothesis-- to try to resolve this important and controversial question once and for all.

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