It's impossible to encapsulate Gurdjieff's system in a few words, but in brief the aim of the system is to achieve consciousness, unity of being, and will.
(RR regarded G. as the most astute psychologist of the 20th century but expressed doubts about some aspects of his persona.)
Gurdjieff referred to his system as a fourth way, i.e., a process beyond the 3 traditional ways of spiritual development, which are the fakir, the monk and the yogi. The fourth way consists of working in the world rather than retreating from it, and is based on understanding rather than belief and obedience. The first 3 ways correspond to three aspects of man taken separately: the physical body, the emotions and the intellect, while the fourth way attempts to balance all human functions.
Gurdjieff explained man's state as robot-like or mechanical (affirmed by RR) and said that the phrase "know yourself" begins with knowing the machine. This includes knowing one's functions and how they operate, the energies they use, and from a psychological perspective knowing the various "I's" (or egos) that act individualistically in the name of a currently non-existent whole.
The study of the machine begins with its pathologies, chiefly negative emotions. The first years of study in a Gurdjieff group consists in the recognition and observation of negative emotions, the inability of man to remember himself, one's lack of will, and the absence of a conscious aim in one's life. Lack of will is proven to oneself by observing mechanical manifestations such as compulsive talking, compulsive movements, general negativity, worrying about one's impression on other people ("considering"), the alternation of "I's" in one's personality, the wandering of one's attention, and the constant stream of distracting thoughts in the mind.
Consciousness, by definition, cannot be arrived at unconsciously. The natural impulse is downward, i.e., mechanical living, and conscious effort and intent is needed to raise one's scope of consciousness.
Energy - Alchemy
G. was very scientific in his approach, and produced detailed diagrams that represent the alchemy of energies that fuel the three-story human factory (diagram is reproduced below). For the uninitiated, the 3 floors correspond with specific locations in the body (lower body, chest, and head). Food arrives in the lower body, combines with existing matter there, and undergoes an upward cycle of transmutation. A second "food" which is air combines with matter and energy in the chest. A third "food" is comprised of impressions, which are perceptions such as those arriving via the senses; this food enters the head (brain) and is likewise transmuted into higher energies.
A detailed presentation of the above is found in Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous. From a practical perspective (for this page) there are several essential considerations, presented in Gurdjieff's terminology:
- Man's energy production is finite but can be augmented, and his energy can be conserved.
- An enormous amount of man's energy is wasted in negative emotions, which are unnecessary and which can be eliminated.
- "Heat" is required to provoke a process whereby the condition of many "I's" is abandoned or transcended. This heat is created by the friction of the many "I's" struggling against each other for dominance.
- A great deal of energy and insight can be generated by the struggle against negative emotions, and the first step in practical work is the non-expression of negative emotions.
Gurdjieff states that man's condition, almost by design, is nearly helpless, as reflected by his lack of will. However, the possibility exists for a few among mankind to take advantage of certain "shocks" (impulses of energy) which can help to provoke a change in his mode of functioning and help him arrive at a higher state of being.
Back to the three-story factory, there are three naturally-occurring shocks in life, which are the mechanical entry of food, air and impressions into the three stories of the machine. In addition, man can obtain two optional shocks, which G. calls "conscious shocks", meaning that they occur only in conjunction with voluntary effort aimed at consciousness.
- Digesting impressions while self-remembering.
- Struggling against negative emotions; also referred to as conscious suffering.
Ouspensky can be consulted for all the elaborate theory that supports this. For this page, illustrations are pulled from a more down-to-earth G-school writer, C.S. Nott, to indicate practical application of these concepts:
Someone asked G. why are we born and why we die.
"You wish to know? Really, to know you must suffer. You must learn to suffer not as you do now, but consciously. At present you cannot suffer one franc, and to understand you must suffer a thousand francs."
"The energy produced by conscious work is immediately converted for fresh work; energy used mechanically is lost forever."
"The more difficult the conditions for life, the greater are the possibilities for productive work - if you work consciously."
- Teachings of Gurdjieff, C.S. Nott, Penguin/Arkana, page 64.
Gurdjieff maintained, in fact, without the struggle against negative emotions, man would be unable generate sufficient energy, insight and determination to achieve consciousness.
A static representation of the alchemy follows. For more information or help with specific questions, please feel free to inquire with this website; some members of TAT have experience in established Gurdjieff groups, but the amount of information is to great to adequately index here.South Florida Gurdjieff Group