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Help into the Future?

If the essence of the teaching is understood practically, then one understands how to generalize the principles to different situations without losing the essential core. Gurdjieff himself gives us this model. The initial presentation of his ideas and methods given to Ouspensky were modified as he tried different approaches to helping his students ‘wake up’. After recovering from his automobile accident, he closed the Prieuré and dedicated years to writing. Although he still had a few pupils, i.e., the “Women of the Rope,” he does not seem to have had large groups around him again until after the war and shortly before his death. I have heard it said that he commented that he preferred his rendition of the creation story as written in the “Purgatory” chapter of Beelzebub’s Tales to the version he initially gave to Ouspensky as the “Ray of Creation”. Both carried the same essence, but very different form. In his controversial book, The Herald of Coming Good, he appears to explain to his initial pupils that he was experimenting with them in the early years of his teaching to learn how to effectively transmit his understanding and invited them to return to him if they wished to do so. He changed his approach over time but retained the essence.

To Share or Not to Share

Understandably, to spread the teaching indiscriminately would dilute and weaken its impact as more and more people without appropriate training would be claiming its mantle with insufficient understanding and personal capacity. On the other hand, it is a fact that Gurdjieff’s “Work” has expanded into the public domain. People around the planet are interested. Where will they go, to whom will they turn for instruction if the best of the trained people are restricting their guidance to their own small group of initiates?

Today, out of necessity, much of this instruction is sought on the internet. Some of the material is good. Much of it is distorted. All of this is, of necessity, less impactful compared with face-to-face interaction. But interested students will not be able to sift the wheat from the chaff without a source of comparison. If seasoned students are unwilling to demonstrate what they have been given, if useful archival material is kept hidden, who will fill the gap but less trained people, both those who are sincere but ill trained and those with desire for power and influence.

This situation is most acute with the Gurdjieff Movements and Sacred Dances. There are people and groups using variations of this material without training from those who have been prepared by Gurdjieff’s students. What is shown on the internet is often incorrect, sometimes significantly so. I have personal confirmation that many people participating in public Movements workshops have no idea that the Sacred Dances are only part of a much more comprehensive training program.  Separating out this one feature from the whole, cannot offer the help that would come with immersion in the entirety of Gurdjieff’s “Work.” And yet, this activity will continue and expand in its fragmented form due to public interest and availability of people offering a taste of the experience.

Is there a responsibility for those who can right this situation to attempt to help? Not all believe so. What does this mean for the inevitable future deterioration towards the exoteric level of manifestation? Could its expansion towards concretization or dissolution be slowed down or corrected (at least for a while), with the appropriate help from the initiated esoteric level?  If the higher does not blend with the lower, the lower cannot develop. What reconciling force could blend these two levels into a practical and helpful response to the situation?

The difficulty of finding a balance on this question is apparent in the issue of teaching Movements to people who are not part of an ongoing Gurdjieff group. There are individuals offering retreats, classes, workshops in Movements and Sacred dances to the general public. Some accept a contribution for expenses. Some use this activity as their way of making a living.  Traditionalists are critical of both activities but particularly the latter. Opinions are expressed as to who has the correct version of the movement, who is teaching it correctly, who has received the right quality of training, who has been “authorized” by whom and so forth.

On the other side, those “out there helping in the world” disagree with what they see as rigidity and politics.  There seems to be considerable interest in the Movements judging from activity on the internet and the ongoing success of publicly offered programs. Regardless of how precisely they are taught, participating in them does offer a taste of a different possibility for being.  However, since they were designed to be part of a larger, more complex, and integrated program, if people are exposed to only a fraction of a larger whole, how is that helpful? Are participants in the public presentations told this fact? Are they directed to established groups for deeper training? Do these public programs offer doorways into the larger teaching or just an interesting experience in the crowded “spiritual” marketplace of workshops and retreats?  Could established groups re-new and enlarge their memberships by offering public Movements classes as points of entry for interested potential students? What would be the objection? Some groups see this as anathema because, in their particular training, movements had to be earned by a year or two or more in groups first, while others view it as a reasonable and practical way to educate and provide a taste of the special quality and experiences that lie within the Gurdjieff tradition.

Challenge of Innovation

To be able to creatively innovate without losing the essence, is a sign of mastery, a sign that the Work has blended with the individual, that they now carry it as their primary guiding principle. They are no longer “in the Work” but rather, the “Work is now in them”. Prior to this blending, the fear of bringing the Work wrongly can easily result in a type of conformity that may discourage innovation and experimentation. It may be this phenomenon that manifests in tension between different lineages and groups over who has the “right” version of the teaching.

This is an important question … if there is only one “right” version. My own experience tells me that, over time, the exoteric manifestations of different teachings begin to vary widely and the greater their apparent differences the more rigidly they are defended. Yet, I find that the esoteric core of all spiritual teaching shares a focus on waking the sleeping potential inside us all and connecting that to its Source. Understanding this principle allows connection across approaches at the esoteric level. From this level, all teachings are variations of a larger Whole.  Differences that once appeared significant, simply disappear.

 A Suggestion

At the time of this writing, the world is slowly emerging from the grip of the Covid19 pandemic. Fortunately, this disruptive global disaster appeared at the same time that internet telecommunication has connected the planet’s population through videoconferencing.

Several years ago, I was asked to participate in a teleconference program on Gurdjeiff’s ideas, sponsored by the Theosophical Society.  Initially, I was reluctant. For years I had heard the mantra that one must meet face-to-face as the Work is an oral tradition and “something” could be “transmitted” when in personal contact. In particular, often cited was the tradition of Baraka or direct transmission through the Being emanations of the teacher. Of course, there are very few actual teachers, but rather many advanced students who can help those “younger’ in “The Work” then themselves. Nevertheless, after consideration, I chose to try the experiment.

My first impression was that there are people with a genuine interest, but who do not have access to a group in their area.  As there is no directory of Gurdjieff groups other than those of the Gurdjieff Foundation, interested newcomers would have to search the Web for chat rooms or discussions groups. Having briefly looked at some of these, the range of quality is large.

I discovered with my initial on-line experiment that some useful aspects of the system could be shared, particularly the ideas and exploration of impressions about assigned experiments, or “tasks”, one can use to begin to learn the experiential aspects of the system.  Of course, large components of the method are obviously unavailable in such a setting.

In recent years, I have been involved with several colleagues in “tutoring”, from North America, a group in Russia which asked for help.  The frequent regular on-line meetings have been augmented by one or two visits a year with the “seniors” guiding the project.  The Russian group engages in the full-compliment of activities including “work periods’ (retreats) and Gurdjieff’s Movements and Sacred Dances, having been trained and supervised all under the direction of trans-continental movements teachers.  The results of these efforts, made discernable by changes in the manifestations of group participants, are no different than I have seen in regular groups that can meet in person with the “leaders”.   What is available to this particular group that is not available to the vast majority of people searching for help on the internet, is direct on-going help from traditionally trained people from direct Gurdjieff lineages.

I am aware that, as a result of the pandemic-forced constriction on in-person group activity, many established groups experimented with meeting “on-line”.  The reports I am hearing coincide with my own impressions, that it is possible to have meaningful exchanges and significant subjective experiences through this medium.  Our local group held our meetings on-line and, although less satisfying than in person, was surprisingly useful. A number of groups have been sponsoring concerts of the Gurdjieff-De Hartmann music while others are participating in on-line guided “sittings” (specialized meditation practices) and reporting the experience favorably.

Necessity is the mother of invention. As the pandemic abates, and people can once again meet in person, what will be learned from this forced experiment in on-line communication? My impression is that this experiment suggests the possibility of an on-line resource structure for people seeking to learn about Gurdjieff’s system, but are unable to work in a qualified group. It could work in a couple of ways.

As the most organized, networked and resource-rich of all Gurdjieff communities, the Foundation groups have the greatest ability, and highest public profile, to become a referral source for individuals seeking contact with a group studying Gurdjieff’s ideas.

Foundation groups could offer on-line help to individuals unable to access a local group, either directly themselves, or through referral to groups descended from other disciple lines. If the Foundation wished to catalogue current groups connected to other Gurdjieff disciples, as well as those within their own network, this would widen the supply of seasoned practitioners, who could take referrals for individual or group tutoring. These internet “students” could be connected with others in their area and actual groups could form and receive occasional visits from their “tutors” to bring more experiential aspects such as retreats, Sacred Dance, and personal contact. Although not ideal, the alternative is to allow interest in Gurdjieff to rapidly devolve into the “wild-west” of amateur, self-appointed gurus and sincere, but unsupported novices.

As paradigms resist change, particularly from members inside their circle, and given the momentum of tradition, this suggestion will be a stretch for members of the current established formal traditional approach. I make it, nevertheless.  Gurdjieff stated that the form of a teaching must change with the times to reflect changes in the psychology of the population. Telecommunication opens the possibility of people from around the planet working “directly” together in a way unimaginable only a few years ago.