Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Dig Deeper


Dec. 21 2020

Some few conversations over the last week have reminded me of how strong Ouspensky’s influence remains in the Gurdjieff community.

To be sure, my first exposure to Gurdjieff’s ideas was from the now famous and oft-cited In Search of the Miraculous; yet this book is above all a highly technical and essentially intellectual examination of esoteric ideas, not a practical reflection of Gurdjieff’s actual personal teaching. We have many, many books from his pupils with a wealth of anecdotes that illustrate how radically different his actual approach was from the 1920s through 1949 when he died. I’ve also been told by those who knew him personally that he was nothing like the image Ouspensky gives of him; and I’ve also been told by those that knew him personally that the Gurdjieff work as it exists today is for all intents and purposes nothing like the way he worked in person with his people.

Gurdjieff’s work, as described by those who knew him, was warm and human, personal and direct; and it was furthermore lighthearted and interesting, not stiff and formal. There was a lot of joking around and casual behavior; not everything was focused on mechanical and technical interpretations of working and people trying to bootstrap themselves by “having a good attention” and so on. He was remarkably human; he revised his opinions when he found them insufficient; sometimes, he was wrong. People argued with him. He drank too much. The man was human; and the rigid bar of iron representing the standards of the Superman which Ouspensky seems to present is deeply flawed, in the end, when one measures it along its entire length and holds it up to what actually happened.

I raise these questions because so much of Ouspensky’s influence still flows through the mainstream currents of the Gurdjieff work. I hear talk of man numbers one through seven, chief feature, crystallization, blah blah blah. The stuff has become a catechism, in both senses of the word: both instruction by means of question-and-answer, and a way of interrogating others. Broadening the question even more, it has become a list of rules that everyone has to examine and more or less agree are true. Or argue about.

When Gurdjieff used the expression, “bury bone deeper,” he meant it to indicate that he was concealing esoteric truths within his texts. The dangers, of course, with his texts are at least twofold: first of all, in that it’s all to easy to dig in all the wrong places in a landscape as vast as Beelzebub’s Tales to his Grandson; and, secondly, that what Gurdjieff buried his bones in was a giant pile of bullshit. 

Gurdjieff was a world-class expert in bullshit, as everyone who knew him reports; and you can’t dig into his work or his writing without getting your hands dirty. That’s part of the point of it all. 

You can’t dig into yourself without getting your hands dirty either, for that matter. 

We need to examine our own bullshit. We can begin there.

The difficulty with Ouspensky’s texts is perhaps more insidious and pervasive, because on the surface they don’t appear to contain any bullshit. Ouspensky presents, intentionally, as bullshit-free; he opens up In Search of the Miraculous by talking about how he had encountered all this bullshit searching for truth, and couldn’t find it anywhere. But now — at the beginning of this book — Ta-da! It can finally be revealed! 

The Truth. The teaching that is not bullshit. 

And he proceeds to reveal it in a 300+ page stream of deadening Victorian language that hammers one nail after another into the coffin lid of other metaphysics and theologies, as though he were a new Martin Luther with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Why has this book and the ideas it carries become such a fixture in the Gurdjieff work? It would be interesting to pretend the book didn’t exist. The Gurdjieff work and even the Gurdjieff literature by his own hand would look very different without it, wouldn’t it? It’s almost as though Ouspensky serves as a graft on the root, changing the whole character of the plant.

When I began this essay, my point, in general, was intended to be that this work is not a theoretical work. 

This occurred to me after a friend of mine made some pontificating comments about good and bad that almost certainly had their roots in Ouspensky’s writings. Ouspensky’s writings play Plato to Gurdjieff’s Socrates; and we can be sure we are not always hearing what was said in this sense. Good and bad, in the translations and even in Gurdjieff’s own words, often turn out to have theoretical overtones related to aim and so on. But, just as it occurred to me this morning when pondering this subject, there are no armchair positions to be had when one examines, for example, the subject of concentration camps. I have been to them; and places like this are where the pontification ends and reality pokes its ugly head into the conversation. 

The Gurdjieff work does not allow reality to poke its ugly head into the situation these days; it has formed a large hairball of esoteric fur it licks off itself that insulates it from the real world. 

Gurdjieff, for example, ran his own personal soup kitchen; yet how many people in the Gurdjieff work do practical things of this nature for those who are poorer than they are, and are suffering? Not a lot, so far as I can see. In point of fact, instead of giving poor people on the street money, Gurdjieff people I know delight in telling the story of how he was with a woman (I think this comes from a member of the Rope, but perhaps someone will correct me on that) who gave a homeless person who was down and out on their luck money, whereupon Gurdjieff made them go to them and take it back, saying, “it didn’t cost you enough and it isn’t enough to do him any good.” 

The story may be apocryphal, but the way it is sometimes wielded as an excuse to do nothing in the face of desperation disturbs me.

In the same way, I note how frequently people in the Gurdjieff work lean on quotations, stories, blasts from the past of various kinds. There is always some authority greater than our own to quote, isn’t there?

Are we to slavishly follow; or do we carve our own path?

Yesterday, my wife and I were in the kitchen and I was at the dishwasher loading it. I remarked to her that I’ve never been that great at investing; I frequently predict the future with accuracy, but I almost never take advantage of it financially.

“It’s not your path,” she replied to me reassuringly.

“I’m over 65, and I’m still trying to find my path,” I said to her.

That is to say, although Gurdjieff contributed significantly, even perhaps essentially, to my search, it is not his search. It isn’t Ouspensky’s search. It is a unique, difficult, questioning, at times confusing, yet fluid and flexible and intensive, examination of life and its questions, that cannot just use Gurdjieff as the magnet that draws all the iron filings together. 

Gurdjieff brought a method of inquiry; and it was not the end in itself. Turning back towards the method over and over again to discover the meaning is a mistake. The meaning lies outside the method.

This is not a technical work. The bone is buried deep in life, not in a book.

We must go out and get our hands dirty.

May you be well within today.


Lee van Laer is a Senior Editor at Parabola Magazine.


  1. Yes. Which is a reason I was never able to truly embrace the foundation. Even those as 'remarkable' as Pauline de Dampierre were somehow caught up in a certain spiritual aristocracy. As for G's son Maurice...and it does remain a family affair in Paris at least - with the grandson Alexandre. The worst thing is the vibe that they really know something special....lol

  2. Correction: Michel de Salzmann (not Maurice :)


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