Georgi Ivanov Gurdjieff, perhaps the original New Age guru, led a life that was one long snub to convention. A constant traveler and relentless spiritual seeker, he was also the most practical of people, a good example of the challenge that we face in needing to make a living while wanting to pursue spiritual interests.
Shoe-shining, manufacturing plaster ornaments, guiding tourists, holding séances and fixing household goods were among the many things he cheerfully did to support himself, and which were in line with his belief that one should live very much part of the world yet not get bogged down in mind-deadening routine. While later in life he became more settled, with groups of followers in European and American cities, Gurdjieff maintained the view that an external environment of change was good for developing inner fixity of purpose. He believed that most people sleepwalk through life, and that our true individuality could only be fufilled when we challenged habitual ways of thinking.
All and Everything, or Beezlebub's Tales to His Grandson is Gurdjieff's 1300-page magnum opus, but Meetings With Remarkable Men contains the elements of his philosophy while also being a fascinating read. Consisting mainly of character sketches, the title of the book is a bit misleading as the 'remarkable men' are the mentors he had in his boyhood, his close friends and anyone who shaped his view of the world. The descriptions are not simply tributes but show how each person brought out a different aspect of Gurdjieff's self.
Gurdjieff's father was Greek but had settled in Armenia; in Alexandropol and later Kars. He was an amateur asokh, a poet, singer of songs and storyteller who immersed his son and three sisters in folklore, sayings and music.
The family had originally been well off, owning large herds of cattle and also managing livestock for others. A cattle plague, however, wiped out virtually all the animals, leaving the family with almost nothing, and despite subsequent attempts at various businesses, they did not regain their former prosperity. Looking back, Gurdjieff surmises that his father did not do well in business because he was not willing to capitalize on the naiveté or bad luck of others. Gurdjieff's own knack for making a buck, then, was perhaps a compensation for this trait of his father's.
Yet his father was remarkable for his ability to remain calm and detached despite these seesawing fortunes. His great enjoyment was gazing at the stars at night, a pastime guaranteed to put small worries into perspective. He told his son to cultivate a space within his mind that was always free, and that he should develop an attitude of indifference to everything that normally disgusts or repels others. For instance, Gurdjieff would find a mouse or a non-poisonous snake in his bed placed by his father, yet be expected to react calmly. This teaching, to observe without judgment and not be a slave to one's reactions, Gurdjieff notes, was to be highly useful in his later life of perpetual travel and change.
Despite his straightened circumstances, Gurdjieff's father enjoyed the company of cultured friends. One of them was a man named Borsh, the Dean of the local Kars Military Cathedral. The two of them decided that the young Gurdjieff was better off being home-educated, and Borsh arranged a top class education for him for such a small provincial town. As the two men talked into the night on deep and important issues, the boy soaked up the conversation, sowing the seeds for his life of questioning and philosophizing.
Another person to influence Gurdjieff in his youth was the deacon at Kars Cathedral, Bogachevsky. His mentor would eventually become Father Evlissi of the Essene Brotherhood monastery on the Dead Sea. This Brotherhood, the author notes, was formed over a 1000 years before Christ, and Jesus was initiated into its mysteries.
Bogachevsky tells Gurdjieff that there are two moralities: objective morality, which has evolved over millennia and represents the bases for goodness as given by God; and subjective, the morality evolved in cultures as represented by intellectual and social conventions, which tends to distort truth.
The priest's legacy to Gurdjieff is his warning not to adopt the conventions of the people around him. He should live only according to his conscience, or objective morality. This alone he could carry with him wherever he went.
The world according to Gurdjieff
Meetings With Remarkable Men is an unusual mixture of travelogue, snippets of wisdom and character portrait, including one woman, the Polish Vitvitskaia, who accompanied Gurdjieff's group on some of its travels. Not your regular touring party, they named themselves The Seekers of Truth.
The author mentions more than once the ignorance of the Western world of all matters Asian, but the circumstances of his upbringing gave enabled him to easily bridge East and West. Sandwiched between Turkey, Russia and Iran, his homeland of Armenia had always been a place of many influences, and his Christian heritage was spiced with folk beliefs and stories of the Near East. In the course of his journeys he would learn many languages and build up a significant knowledge of Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. His way of seeing the world was strongly influenced by Sufism, and he counted whirling dervishes among his friends. His fame is based partly on the belief that he discovered and carried with him ancient esoteric secrets. Whether true or not, it is safe to say he had seen things most people had not, and this air of the exotic must have been attractive to his early followers in the West.
Gurdjieff's mistrust of established sources of knowledge goes back to his childhood, when he realized that science could not explain apparent miracles that he witnessed. His later motivation for travel was to experience things first hand, and a plank of Gurdjieffian philosophy became the insistence on experiential learning - that if something is true for you, then it is true. You become your own authority on life. The author had little time for newspapers, which he believed engineered automatic reactions such as shock or pride in the reader. A journalistic culture turned people into pallid reflections of the mindsets of the day, while the awake person, in contrast, was able to look at everything as if it were brand new.
He was dismissive of modern European literature, because he felt that the European mind had become dominated by thinking at the expense of instinct and feeling. When Gurdjieff came to formalize his philosophy into self-teaching centers, they were called Institutes for the Harmonious Development of Man, that is, for the balancing of all mental and physical elements in a human being.
Was Gurdjieff one of the twentieth century's more significant philosophers, or as the Sceptic's Dictionary would have it, a charlatan? Such was the power of his personality that he attracted a number of famous followers, including the Hollywood actress Katherine Mansfield, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and PL Travers, author of the Mary Poppins books. But his most important follower turned out to be mathematician Pyotr Ouspenky, whose In Search of the Miraculous brought Gurdjieff's ideas to a wide audience. Some thought the man to be arrogant and uncompromising, but in fact he generally shunned publicity. He did seek donations to keep his organization going, but unlike some personal development gurus of today, never sought to create an industry around himself.
Gurdjieff's system of personal development, 'the Work', sought to bring people out of the their normal sleepy state into higher awareness via self-questioning, group encounter and sacred dance. It was an important influence in the counterculture of the 1960s, seen, for instance, in the Gurdjieffian methods adopted by the pathbreaking Esalen center in California. The author's philosophy of first-hand spiritual truth and knowledge became central to the New Age movement.
Gurdjieff recognized the malaise of the modern person as being that they could be one person one day, and another the next, and his psychology aimed for the integration of our many selves into one. A remarkable person was simply he or she who could escape the pressures of automatic reaction and cultural conditioning to be 'all of a piece'. Without this unity of self and purpose we could not really lead an authentic life.
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After many years of travel, in 1913 he he arrived to live in Russia, just before the Bolshevik revolution, and for the next few years divided time between Moscow and St Petersburg. In 1917 he returned to Alexandropol, and then lived in camps on the Black Sea coast of southern Russia, working with his pupils. He lived for a year in Constantinople from 1920, and then toured European cities giving talks and presentations.
In 1922 Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man in Fontainebleau, south of Paris. After a near fatal car accident he began writing All and Everything, or Beezlebub's Tales to His Grandson. During World War Two he lived in Paris, and died in Neuilly, France in 1949.Meetings With Remarkable Men was first published in French in 1960, with an English version in 1963.