Monday, April 20, 2015


‘Life is real only then, when I am.’ G I Gurdjieff. 

There are some ideas that, by their very nature, are truly life-changing. These ideas are powerful and transformative. Certainly I have found that to be true in my own life.

One such idea, which I write about regularly in this blog and elsewhere, is ‘Self is illusion---only the person is real.’ Of course, an idea like that is not likely to change anything in or for you until you understand its meaning and significance. Then you must internalize and actualize the idea.

I first read some of the ideas of the Greco-Armenian mystic G I Gurdjieff [pictured left] when I was 19 or 20. I must say I couldn't understand what the hell he was on about. To this day I have grasped only some of his philosophy, but two ideas forcefully expressed by the man---as recounted by his most famous pupil P D Ouspensky [pictured below right]---I do understand and know to be true. Those ideas are as follows. First, a person has no permanent and unchangeable ‘I.’ Only the person himself or herself is ontologically real. Secondly, ordinarily it takes a major crisis or some traumatic event to bring a person to a point of self-surrender and complete transformation and to come to know and experience their inner power as a person.

In 1912 Gurdjieff appeared in Moscow where he introduced the ideas, teachings and practices that have become known as ‘the Work.’ (To this day, Gurdjieff’s teaching is very much an oral tradition transmitted under special conditions from person to another. Such is the nature of so-called ‘occult’ [that is, hidden or secret, as opposed to Satanic] or esoteric teachings.) In 1922 Gurdjieff began his work in France but he also made several well-publicized trips to the United States of America. He died in France in 1949. To this day there are Gurdjieff groups, societies and foundations in many countries including Australia where I live. The Gurdjieff Foundation (known as such in the USA, and by the names ‘The Gurdjieff Society’ in the United Kingdom, and ‘Institut Gurdjieff’ in France) is the largest organization directly linked to Gurdjieff and was organized in the early 1950s.

Now, before I go any further I need to deal, ever so briefly, with the issue of whether or not Gurdjieff was a fake, a fraud, a con man. Much has been written on the subject and there is more than a little evidence that Gurdjieff’s capacity for self-deception was exceeded only by his ability to deceive others. It’s rather ironic. A major theme of Gurdjieff was that we spend much of our lives in a state of hypnotic ‘waking sleep.’ In other words, we deceive ourselves and a result others as well. Perhaps Gurdjieff was no different, even if he did have considerable insight into the problem. Perhaps his deception was more conscious, even fraudulent. Perhaps he was just a clever hypnotist. That’s all I’ll say, because I really don’t know where the truth lies as respects the matter.

G I Gurdjieff and some of his pupils

However, despite some lasting qualms about the man and his methods, I am very much of the view that Gurdjieff had some very important and true things to say including but not limited to the two ideas expressed above and discussed further below. For starters, he rightly understood that most religions have corrupted the teachings of their respective founders---teachings that are for the most part psychological in nature. He expounded the ancient wisdom that underpins all of the world’s religions and mythologies. And he stressed the importance of constant self-awareness and self-observation---that is, psychological wakefulness---without which there can be no insight, no understanding, and no psychological mutation. However, there are some ideas of his---for example, the idea that there exist higher levels of consciousness and higher bodies---that I simply cannot accept.

As respects the illusory nature of the self, the following quotations of Gurdjieff are taken from Ouspensky’s book In Search of the Miraculous: Fragments of an Unknown Teaching, which recounts his meeting and subsequent association with Gurdjieff:

One of man’s important mistakes, one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I.

Man such as we know him, the ‘man-machine,’ the man who cannot ‘do,’ and with whom and through whom everything ‘happens,’ cannot have a permanent and single I. His I changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago.

Man has no permanent and unchangeable I. Every thought, every mood, every desire, every sensation, says ‘I’.

Man has no individual I. But there are, instead, hundreds and thousands of separate small ‘I’s, very often entirely unknown to one another, never coming into contact, or, on the contrary, hostile to each other, mutually exclusive and incompatible. Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking, ‘I’. And each time his I is different. Just now it was a thought, now it is a desire, now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is a plurality. Man's name is legion.

I have said this so many times, but I will say it again because it needs to be said again and again. Most of our psychological and emotional problems, as well as problems in our interpersonal relationships, arise because we tend to identify with any one or more of those hundreds and thousands of separate ‘I’s, many of which are not only hostile to each other but downright antipathetic. Over time these ‘I’s solidify, so to speak, in our consciousness---indeed, they tend to set like concrete---and we mistakenly believe that they actually are the real person that each one of us is, one of the results being that we tend to perceive things from the completely subjective and distorted perspective of our own self-images. This state of affairs, as Gurdjieff pointed out, is a form of self-hypnosis, but we are all very good at it. Sadly.

Of course, these self-images (‘I’s and ‘me’s) are definitely not the real you, or the real me. They are nothing more than images in our mind which we have conned ourselves into believing are the real ‘me’ (that is, person) that we are. A timid person identifies so closely with the ‘timid me’ in herself that she becomes and acts timid. An angry person identifies with the ‘angry self’ in himself to such an extent and on such a regular basis that he becomes a person who is angry much of the time. And so it is. The point is this: there is no such thing as a ‘timid person’ or an ‘angry person.’ In truth, it is simply the case that there is timidity or anger ‘in’ the person such that they act and behave that way. Yet it need not be that way. People have within them the power to change. Self can’t change itself, but the person can change.

Once we come to understand that we are not any one of those hundreds and thousands of ‘I’s that we generate from moment to moment, and start living from the power and presence of the person each of us is, our lives will undergo a radical observation. We need to see illusion for what it is---illusion. Self is illusion. See the truth of that. Observe your illusory selves in operation. Notice how they clamour for your attention. Each one of these ‘I’s is saying to you, ‘Buy me, identify with me, be me.’ The truth is---we are not any of those self-images. Only the person that we are is ontologically real. So, next time the ‘angry self’ or whatever raises its ugly head, just watch it come and go. Say to yourself (that is, the person that you are), ‘That self is not me. It is not the person that I am. I choose not to identify with that self. I let it go.’ And do just that.

Now, the second idea referred to above, namely, that it generally takes a major crisis or traumatic event to bring a person to a point of self-surrender and complete transformation. Recovering alcoholics and other addicts known this to be true. The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous, who had read some of the writings of the great American philosopher William James [pictured left], understood that ego deflation at great depth was essential for real personal transformation and recovery. Most of us only change in a big way when we are forced so to do. A spouse leaves us, convinced that we will never change and fed up with the way we have been living for decades. Or we lose our job or our finances. In the words of Gurdjieff, ‘Only conscious suffering has any sense.’ I know that to be true. The suffering in my own life, and the pain caused to others as a result, had no meaning or purpose but in the light of recovery and a changed life the suffering does make sense. Well, at least up to a point.

Of course, some people still don’t change when those sort of things happen. Indeed, I have come to believe that there is no one rock bottom. There is simply a bottomless pit for each one of us. Some people keep falling and falling until death or insanity is the result. Gurdjieff said, ‘Man lives his life in sleep, and in sleep he dies.’ But it need not be the case. We can and must ‘wake up.’

Self can’t change. The person can. Let it happen now.


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