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The Life Cycle of Groups

In addition, there is a life cycle for all groups. Groups are born, have a youth, a maturity, an old age, and they die. Extinction may be delayed if participants understand group dynamics, but not avoided indefinitely.  Often the form, the name, and statements of fidelity to the original aim linger, but the group, the organization, even the country or nation, as originally formulated, has disappeared and a shadow or impostor remains.

One way this can happen with spiritual communities is reflected in the challenge a teaching faces to be able to be adapt and communicate its message with relevance in the face of changing language, psychology, and metaphors as the flow of time inevitably produces alterations in culture. An understandable conservative fear of distortion may instead lead to rigidity and failure to adapt the form of the teaching for circumstances in the future different from those prevailing at the time of the teaching’s introduction. This challenging question will be examined later.

One would hope that communities dedicated to the spiritual development of their members would be wise and sensitive enough to try to mediate these inevitable dynamics.  Realistically, as we all carry the burden of a conditioned personality and few leaders of such communities are aware of the larger dynamics that will influence group life over time, these communities are not immune.


Who is taking the responsibility to direct the group’s activities and monitor

the development and needs of individual members? Have they been given this position by their ‘teacher’ after sufficient ‘training’? Have they assumed the position for themselves on their own initiative? What does the group leader use to make this determination? How does the self-appointed ‘leader’ make this decision about their own readiness? Does the leader have prior experience with groups or a background in guiding people? How will the new group ‘leader’ know how to ‘lead’ a group? Will they mimic what was given them? Do they understand the Work sufficiently to improvise, without distortion, when necessary? Do they understand the Work sufficiently to know when not to improvise? How closely does the leader manifest Gurdjieff’s definition of a “remarkable man” (or woman)?   “From my point of view, he can be called a remarkable man who stands out from those around him by the resourcefulness of his mind, and who knows how to be restrained in the manifestations which proceed from his nature, at the same time conducting himself justly and tolerantly towards the weakness of others.” [Meetings with Remarkable Men, “MWRM” p.31]

Gurdjieff also provided another definition of such developed men/women in Beelzebub’s Tales in the chapter about his character Saint Ashiata Shiemash, a “messenger from above” sent down to Earth to try and complete the failed missions of previous messengers. Using the criteria, “by their fruits ye shall know them”, he says, “Of course, at that period also, there continued to be all kinds of chiefs, directors and ‘advisor-specialists’, who became such chiefly from difference in age and from what is called ‘essence-power’ … and they then became such, neither by hereditary right nor by election, as was the case before this blissful Ashiatian epoch, and as again afterwards became and even till now continues to be the case. All these chiefs, directors and advisors then became such in accordance with the objective merits they personally acquired, and which could be really sensed by all the beings around them.” [ Beelzebub’s Tales …”BT” p. 385]

A traditional Gurdjieff group is structured so that potential new leaders may gradually be brought into leadership positions when their manifestations suggest sufficient understanding. To what extent, and with what level of success, the current leaders of Foundation and other lineage groups have trained their replacements is a question that awaits to be seen. The question is even more challenging in groups without such formal structure and peer overview.

And, how good a judge of character are the elders making these decisions? Are they willing to share and perhaps eventually give up the ‘power’ of their position to their apprentices? As in many organizations, some people rise to the top through time and attrition, not always merit. We may hope spiritual schools can avoid this nearly lawful phenomenon, but hope is not necessarily the reality.

Given that nearly all Gurdjieff’s original pupils and many of their disciples are no longer alive, we are currently in the third and fourth generation. Although real “teachers” will continue to arise and be ‘discovered’ by seekers, many who occupy this role are appointed by established group leaders or appoint themselves. How to tell the genuine from the imitation?

Gurdjieff has Ashiata tell us that real leaders do not seek power. Rather, “…when a being has “worked consciously upon himself in accordance with these five strivings, many of them thanks to this quickly arrived at results of objective attainments perceptible to others. Of course, these objective attainments then, as it is said ‘attracted-the-attention’ of all around them, who thereupon made those who had attained stand out from their midst and paid them every kind of respect; they also strove with joy to merit the attention of these outstanding beings and to have for themselves their counsel and advice how they themselves could attain the same perfecting.” [BT p. 386]

Is the label “teacher”, with its implications, still a viable role at this stage? What may be evolving currently out of necessity are more “peer” groups with “elders” who give some guidance based on experience. Teachers, in the traditional sense are rare. The romantic ideal of a genuine Teacher for every existing group, is a just that, a romantic image. It may even happen that leaders and groups reject or deny genuinely offered help, whether from inside or outside the tradition, which is vitally needed, because it does not conform to their understanding or self-image.