Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
George Ivanovich Gurdjieff remains the most enigmatic spiritual teacher of the last century. There is no established text on what he called the Work, and his own writings are deliberately elliptical. Even his date of birth is uncertain, let alone his own teachers. His sometime student Pyotr Ouspenky’s book In Search of the Miraculous is the closest we have to a relatively complete outline of the teaching. Only Gurdjieff’s music, and some of his spiritual dance moves, can be easily found online.
Many people insist he was simply a con artist, a description he would likely have conceded was accurate. But then, as he acutely grasped, any spiritual teacher is that at times. Answers to students have to be couched in terms that meet the student’s current need: perpetually repeatable cosmic certainties are not necessarily helpful. He created his mystique with a purpose, which was to lure people into betraying their own contradictions and self-deceit. Then and only then, he felt able to reach them.
His pseudo-autobiography, Meetings With Remarkable Men, is the most approachable of his published works. It is also one of the more apparently boring books you might happen to read. It took me three weeks to finish and it isn’t long.
Yet putting it down at the end, it finally hit me that the aimless wanderings Gurdjieff describes, along with the consistently unremarkable men he encounters, are a remarkable portrait of human life. The text doesn’t, it seems, describe what he actually did, though some of it’s probably true. What he depicts is how the mind experiences a human life, full of aimlessness, beginnings that never reach their ending, struggles to support oneself, and so on. He writes of wandering all over that part of Asia that lies between the Middle Eastern countries now in turmoil, and the Russian heartland. He travels to Egypt, and has little to say about it. He goes to the ancient Silk Road city of Bukhara, and offers a few dismissive comments, not noticing the actual riches that put the place on the UNESCO World Heritage list. He goes everywhere, and finds nothing ostensibly very interesting.
In the biggest tease of all, though following a pattern set earlier in the text, he and his companions are led to a monastery belonging to a ‘World Brotherhood,’ in which Muslims, Christians, a Buddhist and a shaman all dwell in harmony and wisdom. Finally, Gurdjieff’s friend Professor Skridlov has a spiritual crisis, and demands of their instructor at the monastery, “What, then can we do; how can we live on?”
The reader is pages from the end of the main text here, and expects a payoff. But Gurdjieff writes:
“Father Giovanni, having remained silent for a moment, expressed those remarkable thoughts which I consider it necessary to reproduce, in so far as possible, word for word. I shall place them, as relating to the question of the soul, that is, the third independently formed part of the common presence of a man, in the chapter entitled ‘The divine body of man, and its needs and possible manifestations according to law’, but only in the third series of my writings…”
The third series, of course, was never written. This entire passage just leads to a punchline delivered at the reader’s expense.
All Gurdjieff’s work was aimed at waking us out of habituation and our private conventions. We go looking for answers everywhere, as does his character in this book. It scarcely has a consecutive narrative, and covers decades of his early life; from what we do know, he probably didn’t make all of it up. But he describes a human being sleepwalking through unending projections of its own mind, always expecting to find The Big Thing. Wakeful doing, as opposed to somnambulistic wandering, is his prescription.
It’s like trying to discover our own eyebrows. There is no answer out there, because it’s innate, and discoverable only when we are fully in tune with ourselves. Then, it becomes self-evident.
Love is the law, love under will,