Jonah and the whale, folio from a Jami-al-Tavarikh
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
The question that I keep asking myself is how there can be a new and different—a vital, more inward —work for today.
This, of course, becomes the absolute responsibility of every individual to embody for themselves – and yet we are required both by duty, honor, and circumstances to embody it in the context of today's world, not by trying to turn the clock back and conform to a concept and model of “work” that was introduced 100 years ago, designed for the society it arose in.
There are, to be sure, countless universal and timeless truths in Gurdjieff's work. In some interesting ways, the best single possible source we have for a “preservational template” of the core Gurdjieff teaching is his magnum opus, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson. Yet even here lurks danger, because by turning the book into a Bible, one inadvertently digs a cheerful looking pit lined with stakes, and then perhaps proceeds to lure others towards it.
Our approach to the book thus has to be flexible, creative, re-interpretive, and innovative. It can serve as a template for work; and it succeeds in doing so because it’s entirely (thank God) detached from the departed times and now-obsolete societies that Gurdjieff worked in. It covers what I call the long arc of time, delving into the ancient history of mankind, and viewing man across an expanse of millennia that renders the snapshots, conventions, and circumstances of individual cultures and societies moot.
Gurdjieff did us all a great service by writing this book, because it becomes the model for further future development due to its status as a piece of high art— real art, that is, art that continues to live from generation to generation and produce the same impression, regardless of the societies that form around it.
Attempts to analyze the book and create static entities that set its ideas into rigid forms is, in this sense, a profound mistake. The text was designed with flexibility in mind; to allow its message to quietly slip into the inwardly deepest psychological crevices of the reader, regardless of the external circumstances they find themselves in. Its storytelling has a completely different effect than reading quaint anecdotes about Gurdjieff's behavior, or engaging in repetitive behaviors that imitate the way he conducted affairs hundred years ago. And perhaps most importantly, it effortlessly transcends the stuffy Victorian inflection of Ouspensky's works.
Human beings always look at what’s around them and delude themselves into believing, more or less, that surrounding conditions have always been the way they are now; we can’t see how much things have changed in the last 30 years. We’ve been here for all of that change, after all, and because it’s been incremental, the landscape doesn't look that different to us, even though 30 years ago the way the world communicated, the number of people on it, the resources we shared, and so on were drastically different than they are today.
Waiting for some new "teacher" to arrive on the scene and show us how to reconfigure the external form of our inner work engenders a kind of passivity we cannot possibly, I think, afford to engage in. Each of us needs to actively seek a newness of form from within where we are; and that newness of form has to emerge authentically, organically, with conviction and as much sincerity as we can scrape together, from who we are and where we are. We cannot paste bits and pieces of the “Gurdjieff Historical Society” onto ourselves, hoping that the protective coloration will somehow legitimize our inner work.
There will always be those that argue we can have no such work if we dare to change it; and historical perspectives are the very safest place to hide for those who fear and those who wish to remain passive.
Now, mind you, conservatism is an essential and very good force, to some extent; and anyone knows me knows how absolutely dedicated I am to the honor and preservation of tradition. But we only preserve traditions by testing them, living within them, and reinventing them for the present moment; tradition is not something that preserves what took place long ago— it is something that lives what we are now while taking the past gently into account and respecting it.
In Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Gurdjieff gave us a brand-new mythology. The scale and scope of his effort were staggering; he single-handedly attempted to reinvent the sacred. It's that action, perhaps, more than any of the external trappings surrounding it, that give us an indication of how grave our responsibility is and how much it will take for us to embody a real inner work, rather than vigorously inhabit and imitate a form. There is no doubt, all of us will imitate; and all of us will get some things wrong. But if we don't live from within ourselves first, always testing the boundaries and questioning the sentimental historical territory our understanding emerges from, we betray the principles of inner work, which must always incorporate the living force of today.
Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.