Sunday, April 19, 2009
Gurdjieff Ouspensky, and Christ
There have been a number of occasions on which I have discussed the connections between Gurdjieff's metaphysics and Christianity, most particularly inherently Christian.
In the last post, I mentioned Hesychasm and the Philokalia, and I feel it would be instructive not only to direct readers to links explaining these terms, but also to discuss their implications in terms of an examination of Gurdjieff's teachings.
The Philokalia are a set of teachings from the early Church fathers in which one can easily discover the roots of many of Gurdjieff's ideas. Not only do we encounter the (central) idea of inner silence as it is taught in the work today, we also repeatedly encounter the idea of sensing the inevitability of one's own death, and the need for relentless efforts in the pursuit of inner perfection. Even one of the key "mantras" from the Gurdjieff work-- Lord have mercy -- is nothing more than a contraction of the prayer of the heart: "Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me."
Gurdjieff carefully and intelligently deemphasized the Christian elements of his teaching in order to make it accessible to as many searchers as possible. His efforts in this area were good, but they weren't "perfect"-- in the end, one can't take the apple out of the apple juice. One suspects from his own comments, that it was, in the end, Gurdjieff's gradual approach to the core of his own teachings -- a core which was irrevocably Christian -- that led Ouspensky to leave him. We can collectively delight in the irony that the almost Calvinistic severity Ouspensky reflects in "In Search Of The Miraculous"-- the unending need for effort, the deep and difficult slope that has to be climbed, the constant demand on a man in order to reach his aim -- all appears, almost to a certainty, to be derived directly from the teachings of the early Church fathers as encountered in the Philokalia.
It's true that these texts use language that centers all of their practice powerfully around an understanding of Christ, and polarizes it with the constant invocation of demons and Satan as the opposition. If one just changes a few words, however, one ends up with a set of texts on esoteric practice that even a Buddhist might feel quite comfortable with.
Ouspensky's "In Search Of The Miraculous" does an excellent job of expounding Gurdjieff's cosmology, but at the same time it sets a tone I have never been entirely comfortable with. There is an underlying taste of negativity in the severity he presents. And it is indubitably true that anyone who tries to reconstruct the Gurdjieff teaching from this book will get it wrong. The way that the Gurdjieff work as it has been passed down from master to pupil, directly from Gurdjieff himself in a straight line, is not accurately reflected in this book. Outsiders may argue this statement, but with few exceptions anyone now in a direct line of transmission from Gurdjieff will agree that it is essentially true.
A second difficulty with the book is that it is a document frozen in time. Works evolve and change according to the times, the circumstances, and the individuals practicing them. The record of the work as it existed in the early part of the 20th century is a document, not a living tradition. And that is what we have in this wonderful book. We have a document. The living tradition resides in the efforts and the relationships of the individuals who practice. That can never change. All the wishful thinking in the world about transmitting the work over the Internet will never make it so.
The Gurdjieff work today is populated by a diverse range of pupils, including Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Jews, agnostics, and even atheists. (I will confess I don't understand what the atheists are doing here, but they are welcome. Anyone who wants to work on themselves is welcome in this work.)
Some may question how a work that was so clearly influenced by yoga--in fact, in many ways Gurdjieff's work is a reinvention of yoga, with new terms-- could really have much to do with Christianity. I think the answer to that question lies in the reverence that yogis in India hold for Christ. In yoga, there is truly no controversy or contradiction about the idea that godhood can be embodied in man. One need only refer to Paramahansa Yogananda's writings to see just deeply the understanding of Christ can be integrated into yoga tradition. And, as I have pointed out in other essays, to presume that Jesus Christ did not encounter the ideas or practices of yoga beggars the question. He lived in a region where those ideas and practices must have influenced religious teachings for hundreds, if not thousands, of years, simply by virtue of the fact that ideas traveled on the silk Road along with the merchandise.
In summary, the practices are not at all separated.
Anyone seeking to gain a powerful understanding of the roots of Gurdjieff's teaching needs to pick up a copy of the Philokalia and to read it in some depth. There are particularly interesting passages regarding the practice of using the sensation of breath to connect the mind to the heart. Readers of my own essays on esoteric practice as found at www.doremishock.com will probably recognize those connections (although I had not read the Philokalia at the time I wrote those pieces.) It simply underscores the fact that the Gurdjieff work, if properly practiced, inevitably brings one back to practices that the desert fathers well understood -- practices which an Indian yogi or a zen buddhist might be entirely comfortable with.
I'm not sure that it's possible to pursue the Gurdjieff work to the depths and heights that it offers without coming to grips with the question of Christ. I know that this idea makes many practitioners uncomfortable, and there are forums populated by individuals on the periphery of the work, or not formally associated with direct lines of work, who strongly object to that understanding. Nonetheless, I stand by it.
One cannot practice this work without seeking Christ.
There is good news in all of this. Episcopalians (I am a member of the Episcopal Church) have an agreement among themselves that we all understand the religious texts used in the service -- as well as the text in the Bible -- differently, but that we all agree to worship together. This creates an atmosphere of unity in diversity.
On the other side of the coin -- the secular side, so to speak -- we have Stewart Kauffmann, who offers essentially the same perspective in his terrific book "Reinventing The Sacred."
The point being that we can put our disagreements and (opinionated) understandings aside and instead simply agree to work together. It is within the actual context of the relationship, within the act of working its self, that we discover both our effort and ourselves. If a man or womam needs to understand the idea of Christ differently than I do in order to approach it, so be it. She or he may understand it as light. He or she may understand it as love.
However it is understood, it leaves us in the position of acknowledging that there is a mystery on the level above us that we need to open our hearts to.
And, as I continually experience, if we do not open our hearts to one another -- if we do not learn to more openly trust and love and support one another -- we have no business pretending that we can open our hearts to a higher level.
The work begins here and now, between each one of us.
May our hearts be open, and our prayers be heard.