22 October 2021

G.I. Gurdjieff

G.I. Gurdjieff
George Gurdjieff (d. 1947) was a mystic who believed in the possibility of a higher state of consciousness, and who tried to convey a method for reaching that state. Although he published several books, his ideas are best approached via the work of his pupils, particularly that of Peter Ouspensky. In his book In Search of the Miraculous, Ouspensky tells of his meeting Gurdjieff in Saint Petersburg in 1915 and of how he spent several years trying to learn from him techniques for overcoming ‘mechanical’ psychology.

Central to the teaching of Gurdjieff is the idea that the normal human personality is largely mechanical, and that the ego falsely imagines itself to be in control, and able to make choices, while in reality it is merely reacting predictably to impulses. In order to make genuine choices, Gurdjieff held, it is necessary to develop radically different psychology, which requires first overcoming the delusion that you are already in control.
I asked G. what a man had to do to assimilate this teaching.
   ‘What to do?’ asked G. as though surprised. ‘It is impossible to do anything. A man must first of all understand certain things. He has thousands of false ideas and false conceptions, chiefly about himself, and he must get rid of some of them before beginning to acquire anything new. Otherwise the new will be built on a wrong foundation and the result will be worse than before.’
   ‘How can one get rid of false ideas?’ I asked. ‘We depend on the forms of our perception. False ideas are produced by the forms of our perception.’
G. shook his head.
‘Again you speak of something different,’ he said. ‘You speak of errors arising from perceptions but I am not speaking of these. Within the limits of given perceptions man can err more or err less. As I have said before, man’s chief delusion is his conviction that he can do. All people think that they can do, all people want to do, and the first question all people ask is what they are to do. But actually nobody does anything and nobody can do anything. This is the first thing that must be understood.
   Everything happens. All that befalls a man, all that is done by him, all that comes from him — all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as rain falls as a result of a change in the temperature in the higher regions of the atmosphere or the surrounding clouds, as snow melts under the rays of the sun, as dust rises with the wind.
   Man is a machine. All his deeds, actions, words, thoughts, feelings, convictions, opinions, and habits are the results of external influences, external impressions. Out of himself a man cannot produce a single thought, a single action. Everything he says, does, thinks, feels — all this happens. Man cannot discover anything, invent anything.
   It all happens.
   To establish this fact for oneself, to understand it, to be convinced of its truth, means getting rid of a thousand illusions about man, about his being creative and consciously organizing his own life, and so on. There is nothing of this kind.
   Everything happens — popular movements, wars, revolutions, changes of government, all this happens. And it happens in exactly the same way as everything happens in the life of individual man. Man is born, lives, dies, builds houses, writes books, not as he wants to, but as it happens. Everything happens. Man does not love, hate, desire — all this happens.
   But no one will ever believe you if you tell him he can do nothing. This is the most offensive and the most unpleasant thing you can tell people. It is particularly unpleasant and offensive because it is the truth, and nobody wants to know the truth.
   When you understand this it will be easier for us to talk. But it is one thing to understand with the mind and another thing to feel it with one’s “whole mass,” to be really convinced that it is so and never forget it.’
P.D. Ouspensky, In Search of the Miraculous, Harvest Books, 2001, pp.20-21.