The Changes in Gurdjieff’s Life

Part One

The purpose of this post is simply to present a hypothesis about the changes in Gurdjieff’s life. Perhaps its chief value will be that it raises certain questions, and stimulates better theses. But if I am right, or to the extent that the hypothesis is plausible, it does, I think have practical consequences.

Succinctly, the hypothesis is that, when Gurdjieff emerged as a teacher in Russia in or soon after 1911, he possessed great knowledge, energy, and being; but was, to a certain extent, as yet unbalanced. This lack of balance manifested in at least three ways: in an inexplicable lack of consistency, in uneven judgment, and in a failure to consolidate his work. By the time of his final ten years in Paris (1939-1949), he seems to have been balanced; he was more consistent, and he was consolidating his work. He still possessed all the knowledge and being he had ever had, if not more. But by this time his physical energy was diminishing, and I doubt that he quite left his legacy as he would have liked.

The practical conclusion I draw is that the work to acquire balance and harmony between our functions, and hence the ableness to be consistent, prudent, and to consolidate, are of the first importance in the spiritual life.


Part Two

To put it another way, my hypothesis is that in the following passage, reported by Ouspensky, Gurdjieff was referring to himself, and the work he knew he would have to do:

Man number five has already been crystallized; he cannot change as man number one, two, and three change. But it must be noted that man number five can be the result of right work and he can be the result of wrong work. He can become number five from number four and he can become number five without having been four. And in this case he cannot develop further, cannot become number six and seven. In order to become number six he must again melt his crystallized essence, must intentionally lose his being of man number five. And this can be achieved only through terrible sufferings. Fortunately these cases of wrong development occur very rarely. In Search of the Miraculous, 72.

I cannot prove it, but I think that what he found was not so much a monastery of some sort where there was a knowledge that was taught to him (although that existed), but more importantly, someone or some people who were able to change his being: to give him the being of man number five, and the access to energy and knowledge which came with that. Perhaps because he received so quickly, he lacked continuity and consistency: he was not the product of a slow process as his pupils would have to be. Later, he had to “melt his crystallized essence … through terrible sufferings.” It would seem from the memories people like the Adies had of him, that we can infer that he accomplished this. I mention them because, having had the privilege of being their pupil, I am absolutely certain of their sincerity and their judgment in this.


Part Three

That is the hypothesis. In this article I am only sketching it. To marshal all the supporting evidence and arguments would require a huge study. However, it helps to know that I produced it through pondering five stubborn problems: (1) the many stops and starts in his career: how could these be possible for a developed and balanced man? I refer not only to how he kept moving from Russia to France, and to the closure of the Prieuré which he unsuccessfully tried to avoid, but also to facts such as that he projected ten volumes, and barely wrote five. He taught certain principles, then departed from them (which was Ouspensky’s main stated critique). There was very little continuity or system in his teaching outside of the Moscow years and the final Paris period. The standard explanations are not, to my mind satisfactory.

(2) He made apparent errors in his dealings with Ouspensky, Zaharov, Ferapontoff, Ivanov, Orage, Jean Toomer, Daly King, de Hartmann, and Alexander de Salzmann. Some of these were partly attributable to the stops and starts.

(3) Together with the good material, there are passages of madness, I can think of no other phrase, in Herald of Coming Good. There are difficulties in Beelzebub, but nothing to compare with the craziness in Herald. And then the second and third series are pretty well free of either; suggesting that as he aged, and became more balanced, so did his writing.

(4) The way he fathered children and left it to their mothers to raise them with no or next to no financial support – let alone his personal presence as his children grew up.

(5) The fact, and I see it as a fact, that by the end of his life he was a good man.

I am aware that many devotees will admit no fault in Gurdjieff, and will defend this by saying that we are not in a position to judge him. We are certainly not in a position to understand him, but we can describe what we see, and as our attitude to Gurdjieff is largely a function of how we understand not only his teaching but also him, our view of him affects whether we reject his system or not, and even if we do follow it, how we follow it. For example, I know that some people reject many of the ideas in In Search of the Miraculous, saying that he went beyond them. I think this is superficial.

My hypothesis has some slender support from Gurdjieff: more than once, he told Solita Solano that he was “lopsided,” but perhaps implying that he was only a little lopsided. Also, Bennett’s interpretation of Gornahoor passages in Beelzebub, an interpretation I find plausible, is that it is Gurdjieff himself saying that he made many mistakes when he began teaching and up to, I think, the time of the car accident.


  1. A useful inquiry, thank you for making it. Personally, I am hesitant to engage in analysis, let alone judgement. First, because I feel a deep truth in the principle that one is unable to apprehend the being of one developed beyond one’s own station; and second, because I am deeply sensitive to the limitations of subjective morality and any attempt to judge the inner life of another on the basis of his behavior. In the event your analysis is correct, I nevertheless feel a deep gratitude for the privilege of being privy to Mr. G’s process from “lopsidedness” to greater balance. Like a great artist we are invited into his ordeal, his struggle to pursue a high-order aim through many twists and turns, for his example of conscious labor and intentional suffering. His memory is a blessing, and may all blessings be upon him.

  2. The enigma of Gurdjieff. Whatever the origin of the teachings (whether some individual or monastery), that receiving must remain the most significant change in any life? Ouspensky hints that it was somehow ongoing whilst he taught groups in the initial Russian phase. Can you say more about “although that existed”, in reference to the source?

    In Beelzebub Gurdjieff mentions his “peculiarly composed life”, even alongside any confession of lopsidedness in the Gornahoor passages. But no doubt that he must have gained an an ever deepening understanding – from the teaching itself, from the world, from those he taught, from time, from ‘accidents’?

    There is also the idea of Malamat, that Gurdjieff had to appear more blameworthy in order to fulfill his mission.

    If he truly lived ‘Holy Affirming, Holy Denying, Holy Reconciling’ then it must be some action beyond fault and no-fault? Would it be possible to birth a deep new understanding of reality in what we would see as a neat package?

    1. I will be adding more. I do not accept the idea that Gurdjieff was a Malamati, but I won’t go into that now.

  3. Thank you, as always Joseph, for the ongoing public nature of your progressive process.
    I don’t always agree with you — a moot point — but I have high regard for the honest nature concerning where The Work has taken you. It is always a valuable read for me.
    I was directed towards Gurdjieff’s writings at exactly 11 years and 8 months of my life on this earth. Being an obedient child who also owned a cantankerous consideration for the heuristic trajectory of any author’s body of work, I went directly to a reprint of HERALD, his first published work. I’m so glad I did and that I heard only later — much later — “do not”. From the outset, that reading clarified my relationship to Mr. Gurdjieff and to this day, many decades later, healthily defines it still. I immediately grasped an essence of it’s Prospectus content, understood it’s then opaque-to-me “craziness” as a clear if crude attempt at a series of “blinds” and largely avoided its — yes, insane — implanted sadomasochistic-flavored effect. It is a very subtle piece of work but then I find all the writings published under the name of “G. Gurdjieff” to be so. The Work for me is indeed crude in every sense of the word; both its intrinsic gift and its self-destructive flaw. I don’t care much for the person of Mr. Gurdjieff and it is inconsequential to me as to whether or not he died a Good Man or not. (For me, he did not)
    I went through the books for the next nine years as directed with help provided along the way when in sincere need. By the cusp of the tenth year the Third Series was published and the immediate thought was “Oh no! Do I HAVE to?” and of course I immediately did. Somehow, I received the privately published Triangle edition and to this day I don’t completely know how that came to be.
    It was only after that singular sojourn, that Ouspensky’s SEARCH came into my hands for the very first time. It seemed strange and peculiar and seemed only tacitly connected to what I’d just read. In fact, I didn’t get the connection at first other than the passing impression that this stated “G.” *might* be my troublesome previous author. All that aside, it seemed if ‘G’ was indeed Gurdjieff he was only one of a slew of teachers for Pitor Demanovich: a stopping-off point for him as it were. We, Ouspensky and I, certainly had quite a different apprehension of the presented Facts. I keep a different healthy distance from Ouspensky, too and am all too glad I have done so. I certainly haven’t ignored him but I keep him in a certain perspective.
    (As a note: I didn’t approach any of the termed Secondary Literature until a mere twenty six years ago, roughly halfway through my total trek which appears backwards to the orthodox approach but is very honestly my own revealed to me path)
    A more interesting consideration (for me) is how much the use and abuse of alcohol and sex energy becomes the parenthetical defining operative of the originally manifested Gurdjieff Work. Something — The Work — which should have been a Great Thing becomes less than in hands of two dipsomaniacs –Gurdjieff and Ouspensky — who give no evidence of being able to ordinarily manage the endpoint quality of their own lives. They both remain in makeup classics alcoholics whether they actually drink or not. The end result result for posterity is something else (almost) entirely
    Yes, my bourgeoise middle class self and values stand. And I never allow a preoccupation with purity stand between my need to hear something I truly must know. (The simplistic implementation of that type of censoring has rarely served me well in life) I fret about the level of my own inherent qualities ONLY.
    Another thing that interests me is how much of what is known as the Gurdjieff Work is actually the work of those with whom he intersected.
    Sometimes, Gurdjieff himself reminds me of the user who works hard to do little real actualizing of his own ; he APPEARS to work hard under a chaos of directives. But, I’m little interested in proving that one way or another.
    Having said all that, I care very much for what has been proffered under the Gurdjieff aegis.
    It certainly has been put to good use and worked quite well enough for me and been passed within those situations I’ve found most fit.
    I do believe this enterprise was the developing product of something else for which Gurdjieff was “the only Teacher”. And there are (for me) are plenty of hints within HERALD, the totality “ALL and Everything” and statements within the Secondary Literature, to lend credence to my line of thought. And again, I can’t prove it, and it interests me little to do so as I’m satisfied by what I surmise.
    Was this whole shebang Gurdjieff’s last chance for himself? I have never lost that thought.
    I don’t believe in conspiracy theories regarding this as there is enough Real here to be discerned if one likes.
    I find Gurdjieff disreputable as a total human being and to be finally pitied — if one wishes — for that.
    Thanks for your attention to this, my largely unimportant and meandering two cents.

  4. My major critique of the Gurdjieff teaching is that it is incomplete, at least insofar as it purports to help a given individual toward Self-realization. Bill Segal, in trialogue with Michel de Salzmann and Peter Brook, says that he thinks Gurdjieff was right not to have a teaching about the Supreme Self because at that time Western people were not ready for it.
    So what the Gurdjieff teaching is about is the development of essence into an individual, intermediate self, not the realization of the Supreme Self. Of course this development is essential for almost everyone, and is also required if there is to be any hope for some sort of individual continuation after death in a new or second body. But for Self-realization one needs a more complete teaching and practice as offered for example in a nondual tradition like Vedanta.
    The Supreme Self is simply the Awareness of any and all states of presence, including the state called self-remembering. As Ravindra says in one of his articles on different levels of selfhood, whatever one can be aware of is not the Ultimate Self, and as Reality is inclusive of any and all states, the states are all me, but I am not them.

    1. Once more, thanks. I do not accept Bil Segal as an authority on anything except men’s fashions. There are several examples of his, let us say, “fudging the truth,” or being “very imaginative.”

        1. Apart from Bill Segal’s rationalisation of why he was departing from Gurdjieff’s teaching, what can it possibly be based on, when such notions had long been known in the West and were spreading?

          What Bill Segal was saying is that he knew better than Gurdjieff what Gurdjieff meant and why he didn’t say what he really believed, when if there was anyone who was not deterred by what other people were “ready for,” it was Gurdjieff. The amount of knowledge Segal is attributing to himself is astonishing. On that basis I can say that Buddha believed Christ would be incarnated but he couldn’t say it because people of his time weren’t ready for it.

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