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One aspect of Gurdjieff’s methods that can be problematic when imitated by his followers, was his approach to introducing “shocks”, individually or collectively, what he called “stepping on corns”, i.e. making statements or setting up situations by which students could suddenly see their contradictions and the falsity of their self-image   He also did not want people to become dependent on him and therefore sometimes made life more difficult for them when he felt it appropriate to do so. Sometimes he did this to guests who were not enrolled in his training in order to study the reactions of different “types” to his provocations or demonstrate something to his attendant pupils.  He did not spare himself either.  He confided that, to intensify the energy of his own inner state, he would deliberately make his own life more difficult by intentionally pushing away help.

Unfortunately, many people who copy this as a “technique” are unlikely to have had the same reasons or the same permission, or the same level of spiritual maturation.

This approach is one that cannot be taught … but it can be imitated. Mistakes are easily made by constructing artificial circumstances to “shock” another person into “awakening” from their mechanicalness. Too much force, inappropriate timing, mistaken understanding of what the pupil “needs” are frequent errors. Without referring to this specifically, Gurdjieff makes it clear that after his near fatal accident, he came to the conclusion that he was not seeing in his pupils the results he wished for and needed to change his approach.

The structure and challenge of his method is sufficient for any sincere student to frequently have shocking encounters with parts of him/herself that violate conditioned self-image. Some people taking leadership of “Fourth Way” groups can fall victim to the temptation of using artificial shocks without sufficient understanding of their danger, or to use them to enhance their power over others. As both a psychologist and long-time practitioner in Gurdjieff groups, I can say that unless one knows another very deeply, knows the location of hidden triggers, all the emotional scars and conditioned reactions hiding within them, artificial shocks can be dangerous.

The reason I raise it here in this discussion is my observation as a psychologist and member of a number of groups, that the temptation for a group leader to decide what is best for a group member, is fraught with danger.  Gurdjieff is reported to have extraordinary insight into people.

This is not true of the ordinary group leader. And I’ve learned it often is not true for me either.  I have seen, and heard, the damage done to a sensitive or fragile individual from an off-target response or assumption made by a group leader.  My own conclusion after many years of dealing with people, is to try, always, to err on the side of gentleness. Gentleness does not preclude directness.  Firmness is sometimes appropriate, but it is dangerous if the person who is to receive it is not at a stage of development where it can effectively be received


Another questionable practice that may still prevail in some Gurdjieff groups comes from Gurdjieff’s early remarks to Ouspensky about people leaving the group or being asked to leave.  “All members of group are friends and brothers, but if one of them leaves, especially if he is sent away by the teacher, he ceases to be a friend and a brother and at once becomes a stranger, as one who is cut off.  It often becomes a very hard rule, but nevertheless it is necessary.  People may be life-long friends and may enter a group together.  Afterwards one of them leaves.  The other then has no right to speak to him about the work of the group.  The man who has left feels hurt, he does not understand this, and they quarrel.  In order to avoid this where relations, such as husband and wife, mother and daughter, and so on, are concerned, we count them as one. that is husband and wife are counted as one member of the group.  Thus, if one of them cannot go on with the work and leaves, the other is considered guilty and must also leave.” [ISM pp. 222-232]

Did Gurdjieff follow this rule in later years after the break with Ouspensky?  Madame Ouspensky stayed with Gurdjieff after that break.  Madame De Hartmann stayed with Gurdjieff for a time after her husband Thomas was sent away.  Later, Gurdjieff did force a choice on her, and she left him to be with her husband. I am not personally privy to any other stories about the application of this rule, although others closer to Gurdjieff and his primary pupils may very well be able to fill in the blanks.

Gurdjieff’s proscription to Ouspensky on remaining members was that they should not speak to the departed member about the work of the group. This application is clearly reasonable and necessary to preserve the privacy and safety of a group that encourages members to be totally honest about what they see in themselves.

But the interpretation of the recommendation to ostracize and even shun old friends and spouses, does seem more than harsh.  The reason I raise it here in this discussion is my awareness that some groups still practice a form of this.  Unfortunately, when groups split over issues of practice or politics or personality, they often stay apart for years.  Some cities have two or sometimes three separate Gurdjieff groups.  Sometimes they cooperate and sometimes not. Some lineages are more open to working together.  Others prefer to remain closed even to other Gurdjieff practitioners. As the Work expands out into the world and more and more groups form around an interest in these ideas, this secrecy and exclusivity raises a question about how best to offer help into the future.