Friday, July 11, 2008

Gurdjieff Biography

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (Armenian: Գեորգի Գյուրջիև; Russian: Георгий Иванович Гюрджиев; Georgiy Ivanovich Gyurdzhiev (or Gurdjiev); January 13, 1866? – October 29, 1949), was an Armenian mystic, a teacher of sacred dances, and a spiritual teacher. He is most notable for introducing what some refer to as "The Work," connoting work on oneself according to Gurdjieff's principles and instructions, or as he first referred to it, the Fourth Way.

At different times in his life he formed and liquidated various schools around the world to utilize his teachings. He claimed that the teachings he brought to the West from his own experiences and early travels expressed the truth found in other ancient religions and wisdom teachings relating to self-awareness in one's daily life and humanity's place in the universe.
His teachings might be summed up by the title of his third series of writings: Life is Real Only Then, When 'I Am', while his complete series of books is entitled "All and Everything."


The only account of Gurdjieff's early biography before he appeared in Moscow in 1912 can be found in his text Meetings with Remarkable Men. This text, however, cannot be read as straightforward autobiography.

It was in the pre-1912 period that Gurdjieff went on his apocryphal voyage outlined in Meetings with Remarkable Men where he comes upon a map of "pre-sand Egypt" which allegedly leads him to study with the esoteric group the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Coincidentally, Gurdjieff is one of the only sources lending credibility for the existence of this group.
Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol (now Gyumri), Armenia. The exact date is unknown (anything ranging from 1866 to 1877 has been offered). Some authors argue persuasively for 1866 even though his passport states that he was born on November 28, 1877. Gurdjieff grew up in Kars and traveled to many parts of the world (such as Central Asia, Egypt, Rome) before returning to Russia in 1912.

From 1913 to 1949 the chronology appears to stand on the much firmer ground afforded by primary documents, independent witness, cross-reference, and reasonable inference.[4] On New Year's Day of 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first associates. In the same year he married Julia Ostrowska in St Petersburg. In 1914 Gurdjieff first advertised his ballet, "The Struggle of the Magicians," as well as supervised his pupils' writing of the sketch "Glimpses of Truth". In 1915 Gurdjieff accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil, while in 1916 he accepted the composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife Olga as students. At this time he had around thirty pupils.

Many authors have speculated that Gurdjieff was a spy, most likely of the Tsar, during the wars. This claim has been neither proven nor widely dismissed, since Gurdjieff had access to most places in Asia. Gurdjieff personally commented indirectly on this claim in his book Beelzebub's Tales when he said that "during a war every person that is somewhat awake is considered a spy because of his seriousness and alertness."

In the midst of revolutionary upheaval in Russia he left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol. During the Bolshevik Revolution Gurdjieff set up temporary study communities in Essentuki in the Caucasus, then Tuapse, Maikop, Sochi and Poti, all on the Black Sea coast of Southern Russia, where he worked intensively with many of his Russian pupils.
In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, and four months later Gurdjieff's eldest sister and her family reached him in Essentuki as refugees, bringing news that Turks had shot his father in Alexandropol on 15 May. As Essentuki became increasingly threatened by civil war, Gurdjieff planted a fabricated newspaper story of his forthcoming "scientific expedition" to Mount Induc. Posing as a scientist, Gurdjieff left Essentuki with a following of fourteen (which does not include Gurdjieff's family or Ouspensky). They went by train to Maikop where hostilities detained them for three weeks. In spring of 1919 Gurdjieff met and accepted as pupils the artist Alexandre Salzmann and his wife Jeanne. In collaboration with Jeanne Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his Sacred Dances (Movements in Tbilisi Opera House, 22 June).

In autumn 1919 he and his closest pupils moved to Tbilisi. In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, they walked by foot to Batumi on the Black Sea coast, and then Istanbul. There Gurdjieff rented an apartment on Koumbaradji Street in Péra and later at 13 Abdullatif Yemeneci Sokak near the Galata Tower. The apartment is near the tekke (monastery) of the Mevlevi Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and Thomas de Hartmann experienced the sema ceremony of The Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul Gurdjieff also met John G. Bennett.

In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff traveled around western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities such as Berlin and London, capturing the allegiance of Ouspensky's many prominent pupils, notably the editor A. R. Orage. After he lost a civil action to acquire Hellerau possession in Britain, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Fontainebleau-Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau. Gurdjieff acquired notoriety after Katherine Mansfield died on 9 January 1923.

In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, Gurdjieff had a near fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery—against medical expectation. Still convalescent, he formally "disbanded" his Institute on 26 August (but in fact he dispersed only his less dedicated pupils), and began writing All and Everything.
In 1925 Gurdjieff's wife contracted cancer, and she died in 1926 despite radiotherapy and Gurdjieff's unorthodox treatment. Ouspensky attended her funeral.

Starting in 1929, Gurdjieff made visits to North America where he took over as the teacher of pupils who were at that time being taught by A.R. Orage.

In 1935 Gurdjieff stopped writing All and Everything, having completed the first two parts of the trilogy and only having started on the Third Series (published under the title Life is Real Only Then, When 'I Am').
In Paris, Gurdjieff lived at 6 Rue des Colonels-Rénard, where he continued to teach throughout World War II.
Gurdjieff died on October 29, 1949 at the American Hospital in Neuilly-sur-Seine, France. His funeral was held at the St. Alexandre Nevsky Russian Orthodox Cathedral at 12 Rue Daru, Paris. He is buried in the cemetery at Fontainebleau-Avon.

Gurdjieff claimed that people do not perceive reality, as they are not conscious of themselves, but live in a state of hypnotic "waking sleep."
"Man lives his life in sleep, and in sleep he dies." Gurdjieff taught that each person perceived things from a completely subjective perspective. Gurdjieff stated that maleficent events such as wars and so on could not possibly take place if people were more awake. He asserted that people in their typical state were unconscious automatons, but that it was possible for a man to wake up and experience life more fully.

Main article Fourth Way
In his early lectures G.I. Gurdjieff described his approach to self-development as the Fourth Way.[10] In contrast to the three eastern teachings that emphasize the development of the body, mind, or the emotions separately, Gurdjieff's exercises worked on all three at the same time to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development. Today, Gurdjieff's teachings are also sometimes referred to as "The Work," "The Gurdjieff Work," "Work on oneself" or simply the "Work."[11] Though Gurdjieff never put major significance on the term "Fourth Way" and never used the term in his writings, his pupil P.D. Ouspensky made the term and its use central to his own teaching of the Gurdjieff Ideas. After Ouspensky's death, his students published a book with that name, based on his lectures.
Gurdjieff's teaching mainly addressed the question of people's place in the universe and their possibilities for inner development. He taught that higher levels of consciousness, higher bodies, and inner growth and development is possible.

In his teaching Gurdjieff gave a distinct meaning to various ancient texts such as the Bible and many religious prayers. He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning than what is commonly attributed to them. "Sleep not;" "Awake, for you know not the hour;" "The Kingdom of Heaven is Within"...are examples of biblical statements that point to a psychological teaching whose essence has been forgotten.

Gurdjieff taught people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways, and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. According to his teaching, this inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, whose aim is to transform a man into what Gurdjieff believed he ought to be.

Distrusting "morality," which he describes as varying from culture to culture, often contradictory and superficial, he greatly stressed the importance of conscience. This he regarded as the same in all people, buried in people's subconsciousness, thus both sheltered from damage by how people live and inaccessible without "work on oneself."

To provide conditions in which inner attention could be exercised more intensively, Gurdjieff also taught his pupils "sacred dances" or "movements" which they performed together as a group, and he left a body of music inspired by what he heard in visits to remote monasteries and other places, which was written for piano in collaboration with one of his pupils, Thomas de Hartmann. Gurdjieff also used various exercises, such as the "Stop" exercise, to prompt self-observation in his students. Other shocks to help awaken his pupils from constant day-dreaming were always possible at any moment.


Gurdjieff transmitted his ideas through a number of different methods and materials, including meetings, music, movements (sacred dance), writings, lectures, and innovative forms of group work. He was not consistent in his use of these materials through his lifetime; for example, six years in Paris were devoted primarily to writing, while composition of music and movement centered around a few distinct periods. In Russia he was described as keeping his teaching confined to a small circle, while in Paris and North America he gave numerous public demonstrations.

Gurdjieff felt that the traditional methods of self-knowledge -- those of the fakir, monk, and yogi (acquired, respectively, through pain, devotion, and study) -- were inadequate.
"Gurdjieff's system, which involved music, movement, dance, and self-criticism, enabled the unrealized individual to transcend the mechanical, acted-upon self and ascend from mere personality to self-actualizing essence."

In this way, Gurdjieff's methodology has been compared to fellow Eastern European mystics Peter Deunov and Ottoman Hanish, whose Paneurhythmy and Persian/Caucasoid Yoga work, respectively, also centered on physical movement, music, and dance: "these men come from an ancient tradition scattered around the Black Sea," and stemming from ancient Gnostic Bogomilism, the synthesis of Armenian Paulicianism and the Bulgarian Slavonic Church reform movement. Unlike his contemporaries, however, Gurdjieff quickly became well known in the West, establishing centres from France to New York to Scottsdale, Arizona.


The Gurdjieff music divides into three distinct periods. The first period is the early music, including music from the ballet Struggle of the Magicians and music for early Movements, dating to the years around 1918.
The second period music, for which he is best known, written in collaboration with Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, is described as the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music. Dating to the mid 1920s, it offers a rich repertory with roots in Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music, Russian Orthodox liturgical music, and other sources. This music was often first heard, and even composed, in the salon at the Prieure. Since the publication of four volumes of this piano repertory by Schott, recently completed, there has been a wealth of new recordings, including orchestral versions of music prepared by Gurdjieff and de Hartmann for the Movements demonstrations of 1923-24.

The last musical period is the improvised harmonium music which often followed the dinners Gurdjieff held in his Paris apartment during the Occupation and immediate post-war years, to his death in 1949. A virtually encyclopedic recording of surviving tapes of Gurdjieff improvising on the harmonium was recently published.
In all, Gurdjieff in collaboration with de Hartmann composed some 200 pieces.


Movements, or sacred dances, constitute an integral part of the Gurdjieff Work. Gurdjieff sometimes referred to himself as a "teacher of dancing," and gained initial public notice for his attempts to put on a ballet in Moscow called "Struggle of the Magicians."

Films of Movements demonstrations are occasionally shown for private viewing by the Gurdjieff Foundations, and one is shown in a scene in the Peter Brook movie Meetings with Remarkable Men.

Group Work

Gurdjieff taught that group efforts greatly surpass individual efforts towards self-development, and therefore he created innovative ways for individuals to come together to pursue his work. Students regularly met with group leaders in group meeting, and groups of students came together in "work periods" where intensive labor was performed and elaborate meals were prepared.

Gurdjieff student William Segal recounts periods of hard labor "around the clock" in his autobiography[19] A Voice at the Borders of Silence. Gurdjieff's student John Pentland connects the Gurdjieff group work with the later rise of encounter groups. Groups also often met to prepare for demonstrations or performances to which the public was invited.


Gurdjieff wrote and approved for publication three volumes of his written work under the title All and Everything. The first volume, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, is a lengthy allegorical work that recounts the explanations of Beelzebub to his grandson concerning the beings of the planet Earth. Intended to be a teaching tool for his teachings, Gurdjieff had gone to great lengths in order to increase the effort needed to read and understand the book. The second volume, Meetings with Remarkable Men, was written in a very easily understood manner, and purports to be an autobiography of his early years, but which also contains many allegorical statements. His final unfinished volume, Life is Real Only Then, When 'I Am', contains a fragment of an autobiographical description of later years, as well as transcripts of some lectures.

As Gurdjieff explained to Ouspensky ... "for exact understanding exact language is necessary." In his first series of writings, Gurdjieff explains how difficult it is to choose an ordinary language to convey his thoughts exactly. He continues..."the Russian language is like the English...both these languages are like the dish which is called in Moscow 'Solianka', and into which everything goes except you and me...".

In spite of the difficulties, he goes on to develop a special vocabulary of a new language all of it his own. He uses these new words particularly in the first series of his writings. However, in The Herald of Coming Good, he uses one particular word for the first time which does not appear in any of his other writings: ..." Tzvarnoharno...leads to the destruction of both him that tries to achieve something for general human welfare and of all that he has already accomplished to this end." According to Gurdjieff, King Solomon himself coined this particular word; as such, it seems to be a key to understanding the legend of Hiram Abiff.

Reception and Influence

Opinions on Gurdjieff's writings and activities are divided. Sympathizers regard him as a charismatic master who brought new knowledge into Western culture, a psychology and cosmology that enable insights beyond those provided by established science.[23] Critics assert he was simply a charlatan with a large ego and a constant need for self-glorification.

Gurdjieff had a strong influence on many modern mystics, artists, writers, and thinkers, including Frank Lloyd Wright, Keith Jarrett, Alan Watts, Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson, Robert Fripp, Jacob Needleman, John Shirley, Dennis Lewis, Peter Brook, Kate Bush, P. L. Travers, Robert S de Ropp, Walter Inglis Anderson, Alejandro Jodorowsky, Louis Pauwels and James Moore. Gurdjieff's notable personal students include Jeanne de Salzmann, Willem Nyland, Lord Pentland (Henry John Sinclair), P. D. Ouspensky, Olga de Hartmann, Thomas de Hartmann, Jane Heap, John G. Bennett, Alfred Richard Orage, Maurice Nicoll, George and Helen Adie and Katherine Mansfield. Aleister Crowley visited his Institute at least once. Gurdjieff called Crowley 'dirty,' and wanted him to leave the institute. Privately Crowley praised Gurdjieff's work, though with some reservations.
However one regards Gurdjieff's teaching, or Gurdjieff personally, he appears to have given new life and practical form to ancient teachings of both East and West. For example, the Socratic/Platonic emphasis on "the examined life" recurs in Gurdjieff's teaching as the practice of self-observation. His teachings about self-discipline and restraint reflect Stoic teachings. The Hindu/Buddhist notion of attachment recurs in Gurdjieff's teaching as the concept of identification. Similarly, his cosmology can be "read" against ancient and esoteric sources, respectively Neoplatonic and such a source as Robert Fludd's treatment of macrocosmic musical structures. American psychological culture has seized on one of Gurdjieff's introductions, the enneagram. Although for many students of the Gurdjieff tradition the enneagram remains a "koan," challenging and never explicated once and for all, the enneagram figure has been used as the basis for personality analysis, for example in the Enneagram of Personality, developed by Oscar Ichazo, Helen Palmer, and others, and in that application is not related to Gurdjieff's teaching or to his explanations of the enneagram.


Gurdjieff had influenced the formation of many groups after his death, all of which still function today and follow his ideas.
The Gurdjieff Foundation, the largest organization directly linked to Mr. Gurdjieff, was organized by Jeanne de Salzmann during the early 1950s, and led by her in cooperation with other direct pupils. The main three branches of the Foundation are The Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, The London-based Gurdjieff Society, the Institut Gurdjieff (Paris), and the network of foundations in South America founded by the late Natalie de Etievan, daughter of Jeanne de Salzmann. Connected to these four foundations are numerous smaller groups around the world, collected under the umbrella of the International Association of Gurdjieff Foundations. The president of the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York was Lord Pentland, who retained this position until his death.

There are also other groups formed by one or another of Gurdjieff's pupils. Willem Nyland, one of Gurdjieff's closest students and an original founder and trustee of The Gurdjieff Foundation of New York, left to form his own groups in the early 1960s. Jane Heap was sent to London by Gurdjieff, where she led groups until her death in 1964. Louise Goepfert March, who became a pupil of Gurdjieff's in 1929, started her own groups in 1957 and founded the Rochester Folk Art Guild in the Finger Lakes region of New York State; her efforts were closely linked to the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York. There are also independent groups which were formed and led by John G. Bennett.

There are also third-generation independent groups today such as those of William Patrick Patterson (student of Lord Pentland). Interestingly India, one of the cradles of spiritual traditions since ancient times, also has a Group under the mentorship of Ravi Ravindra who was a student of Mme De Salzmann and Dr. Welch.
Currently, Gurdjieff's influence has expanded from traditional Gurdjieffianism to variants with no relationship to him or his teaching apart from the use of his name.


Criticism of Gurdjieff's system largely focuses on his insistence that people are "asleep" in a state closely resembling "hypnotic sleep." Gurdjieff said, even specifically at times, that a pious, good, and moral man was no more "spiritually developed" than any other person; they are all equally "asleep."

The primary criticism of Gurdjieff's work is that it attaches no value to almost everything that comprises the life of an average man. According to Gurdjieff, everything an "average man" possesses, accomplishes, does, and feels is completely accidental and without any initiative.

In his most elaborate writing, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson (see bibliography), Gurdjieff records his reverence for the founders of the mainstream religions of East and West and his contempt by and large for what successive generations of believers have made of those religious teachings. His ironical discussions of "orthodoxhydooraki" and "heterodoxhydooraki"--orthodox fools and heterodox fools, from a Russian word -- position him as a critic of religious distortion and, in turn, as a target for criticism from some within those traditions. Gurdjieff has been interpreted by some to have had a total disregard for the value of mainstream religion, philanthropic work, and the value of doing right or wrong in general.
Gurdjieff's detractors, despite his seeming total lack of pretension to any kind of "guru holiness," argue that the many anecdotes of his sometimes unconventional behavior display the unsavory and impure character of a man who was a cynical manipulator of his followers. Gurdjieff's own pupils wrestled to understand him. For example, in a written exchange between Luc Dietrich and Henri Tracol dating to 1943: "L.D.: How do you know that Gurdjieff wishes you well? H.T.: I feel sometimes how little I interest him--and how strongly he takes an interest in me. By that I measure the strength of an intentional feeling."

Other Views

Gurdjieff's funeral
With so much surrounding Gurdjieff and his teaching, other views are possible. For example, during the Russian period he spoke with respect of the obyvatel, the simple householder or salt-of-the-earth peasant, who lives by traditional values and slowly develops himself. Much later, in Paris, he gave encouragement and financial help to a multitude of people who were hard up for one reason or another. His Paris flat had, people say, one of the world's worst art collections, consisting of pieces purchased from indigent artists as a cover for providing them with funds without humiliating them. Diogenes, the ancient Greek Cynic philosopher whom Gurdjieff resembles, once said of himself that like the chorus master, he set the note a little high so that the chorus would hit the right note. For his pupils and in his writings, Gurdjieff set the note "a little high" as a goal and inspiration, while in his personal conduct he was generous to "the average man." Many such people attended his funeral at the Russian cathedral, rue Daru. Gurdjieff's pupils did not know them.


Gurdjieff is best known through the published works of his pupils. His one-time student P. D. Ouspensky wrote In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, which some regard as a crucial introduction to the teaching. Others refer to Gurdjieff's own books (detailed below) as the primary texts.
Accounts of time spent with Gurdjieff have been published by A. R. Orage, Charles Stanley Nott, Thomas and Olga de Hartmann, Fritz Peters, René Daumal, John G. Bennett, Maurice Nicoll, Margaret Anderson, and Louis Pauwels, among others. Many others were drawn to his 'ideas table': Frank Lloyd Wright, Kathryn Hulme, P. L. Travers, Katherine Mansfield, and Jean Toomer.

Three books by Gurdjieff were published after his death: Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, Meetings with Remarkable Men, and Life is Real Only Then, When 'I Am'. This trilogy is Gurdjieff's legominism, known collectively as All and Everything. A legominism is, according to Gurdjieff, "one of the means of transmitting information about certain events of long-past ages through initiates". A book of his early talks was also collected by his student and personal secretary, Olga de Hartmann, and published in 1973 as Views from the Real World: Early Talks in Moscow, Essentuki, Tiflis, Berlin, London, Paris, New York, and Chicago, as recollected by his pupils.

The feature film Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979), based on Gurdjieff's book by the same name, depicts rare performances of the sacred dances taught to serious students of his work, known simply as the movements. The film was written by Jeanne de Salzmann and Peter Brook, directed by Brook, and stars Dragan Maksimovic and Terence Stamp.

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