Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises

Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises

New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. 326 pp., hardcover, $99.

Years ago, I wrote a letter to Colin Wilson, the prolific writer on the paranormal, to thank him for his book The Occult, purely because of the book’s section on G.I. Gurdjieff (1866?–1949). It offered a reasonably good general description of Gurdjieff’s teachings. I recognized notions that were part of my own viewpoint on life: that we are asleep when we think we are awake; that we are mostly mechanistic in our responses, having very little objective control over what we do; that we are so deeply identified with our series of trances that we’ve lost the fundamental meaning underpinning existence.

 Inspired, I searched for Gurdjieff, found his chief exponents, and learned a great deal more, which was of enormous benefit to me. I did take issue with one observation of Wilson’s—he claimed that Gurdjieff had failed to pass his teaching along, in any powerful way, to his pupils. The fallacy, oft repeated, is that Gurdjieff had no methodology to work with, only shocking ideas.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Great exponents of the Gurdjieff Work, like Lord John Pentland, Michel Conge, Michel de Salzmann, Paul Reynard, William Segal, the late Jean-Claude Lubtchansky, and especially Jeanne de Salzmann, all attained to profound consciousness through the Gurdjieff Work. Many of their students grew into fine teachers of this merging of Eastern and Western esoteric teachings.

As for methodology, it is the core of Gurdjieff’s teaching. Gurdjieff did not say that we’re in the awful state of waking sleep hopelessly. He said that there is a way out: there is a praxis leading to real consciousness, inner freedom, higher being. Only it is hard and unsettling work.

Until recently, the methods were nearly all passed along orally, in person, by teachers of a Gurdjieff group. (Hence Wilson didn’t hear of them.) Speaking of them out of school was discouraged. This is a time-honored means to keep an esoteric school relatively pure. Certain methods were indicated in Gurdjieff’s unfinished work Life Is Real, Only Then, When I Am; certain others, such as the practice of intentional suffering (not as scary as it sounds), can be found in his gigantic allegory, All and Everything: Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson. Books by his followers, like Maurice Nicoll’s Psychological Commentaries on the Teaching of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky, provided samplings of his methods. The movie Meetings with Remarkable Men has a good presentation of the Gurdjieff Movements, a form of sacred dance with its own special music (based on traditional temple music and Middle Eastern folk music). The Movements offer a potent means of inner transformation through a challenging terpsichorean discipline.

 But in recent years two books have emerged to offer us in-depth entrée into some of the most esoteric methods Gurdjieff taught. The first of those books is The Reality of Being by Jeanne de Salzmann, which startled and dismayed certain hidebound Gurdjieffians with its crystalline exposition of Gurdjieff’s methods. The second has more recently come upon us, and it may be equally controversial: Joseph Azize’s thoughtful exegesis, Gurdjieff: Mysticism, Contemplation, and Exercises.

Azize’s volume is constructed in three segments: “Part I: Introductory”; “Part II: Gurdjieff’s Contemplative Exercises”; and “Part III: Exercises from Gurdjieff’s Pupils.”

The introductory section includes a sound biographical sketch of what is known of Gurdjieff’s life and the development of his institute in Fontainebleau, France, followed by a condensed but relatively inclusive summary of his cosmological, anthropological, and psychological ideas.

Part II delves into Gurdjieff’s contemplative exercises, involving subtle but deep inner work with attention and an array of energy forms. It also provides a good sense of the legendary Stop Exercise. Azize culls a sharp description from a 1924 transcription:

The pupil must at the word “Stop” . . . arrest all movement. The command can be given at anytime or anywhere. Whatever he may be doing, whether at work, repose, at meals, on the Institute premises or outside, he must instantly stop. The tension of his muscles must be maintained, his facial expression, his smile, his gaze, must remain fixed and in the same state as they were . . . The Institute’s method of preparation for the harmonious development of man, is to free him from automatism . . . The physical body being maintained in an unaccustomed position, the subtler bodies of emotion and thought can stretch into another shape.

Azize quotes Gurdjieff’s student Kenneth Walker on one of the fundamentals of Work exercises:

An exercise for sensing various parts of the body . . . a method by which I should become more aware of the energy I was originally throwing away. He suggested that I should draw an imaginary circle around myself, beyond which my attention and my energies should never be allowed to stray, so long as I was engaged in doing this exercise.

One of the keystones of Gurdjieff’s praxis is the harmonizing of the inner self through attention intentionally directed to the “three centers”—essentially, the mind, the feeling center (emotions), and the machinery of the body; these are all contemplated and objectively studied, and then united in a sphere of alert, benign attention. Azize’s book spells out various exercises to accomplish this. The aim is to activate all three centers at once so that they occupy our minds fully (mindfully) and use their distinct energy forms intelligently and with ever more refined vibrational attunement.

Gurdjieff taught that the soul can be developed into something lasting, something more independent and attuned with the Absolute, partly by means of “coating” it, little by little, through conscious breathing, drawing in a special food that is in air itself, which combines with the “food of impressions.” The food of impressions is harvested by means of his powerful method of self-observation. Exercises of this kind are found in several parts of Azize’s book.

Joseph Azize is a priest of the Maronite Catholic Church, so it’s no surprise that he relates much of Gurdjieff’s contemplative exercises to Christian esoteric practices. Gurdjieff did refer to his teaching once as “esoteric Christianity” and gave practices that he said were from the Orthodox monastic center at Mount Athos, Greece. Azize points out that Gurdjieff used mantras resembling the Orthodox Jesus Prayer, but with words relating to the Fourth Way, especially the “I Am” exercise, in which the phrase “I Am” is repeated and in a sense projected into the body and emotional center, along with other phrases which provide a particular nourishing resonance.

Part III contains some surprises: the strikingly esoteric Four Ideals exercise, for example, and the Color Spectrum exercise, which combines inner sensation with color visualization.

 George Adie, a teacher of the Fourth Way, apparently learned the Clear Impressions exercise from Gurdjieff. Azize offers it in detail, painstakingly describing a practice of dividing the attention and turning it to both the inner and the outer world in multiple levels of conscious presence.

Azize does a good job of showing us how Gurdjieff—who was always experimenting with new ways to convey what he’d discovered for himself—tried various techniques of exposition, his teaching evolving over the decades as he gradually revealed more and more.

Work with attention—which requires a firming up of will—is the consistent thread through these exercises. Directing attention within oneself is basal to esoteric work in many traditions, and it’s essential in the Gurdjieff Work. Reading Azize’s valuable, crisply written compilation, we soon realize that ordinary mindfulness efforts, while useful, are like a child’s wading pool. To really swim, you need to get into the deep end.

John Shirley

 John Shirley is the author of Gurdjieff: An Introduction to His Life and Ideas, and many novels including The Other End, Demons, and Stormland.