Sitting on a psychotherapy couch in Santa Monica, California, I encountered “the rascal mystic,” George Gurdjieff, for the first time.
At this memorable meeting, my therapist indulged me with a series of stories about his own youth. He told me how he came from Argentina to California during the early seventies—a time of protests, anti-war rhetoric, sexual liberation, burning of bras, the Beatles, and the transmission of Eastern religion to the West.
He had attended a long residency at Big Sur’s burgeoning think tank, the Esalen Institute, where he was first introduced to the work of George Ivanovich Gurdjieff. In turn, he recommended I consult the work myself and notify him of whatever I found.
Gurdjieff was born in Armenia in 1872 and left home at an early age to travel the East. His curiosity led him to central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet, Rome, and Russia. During this time, he met remarkable people and studied over 100 world religions.
He developed his own comprehensive philosophy of life, proposing that conventional approaches to truth seeking—such as the path of the yogi, the monk, and the faker—were unfit for modern people. Constant hours in isolation was not realistic for the societal life.
In response, he developed an alternative method he called “The Fourth Way,” which helped ordinary people master their attention and achieve various levels of spiritual transcendence.
I quickly became enamored with these teachings. I am now convinced that Gurdjieff was one of the most influential thinkers of the twentieth century, impressing a vast array of people. From intellectuals to writers, from artists to musicians, his work reached far beyond just those of spiritual inclination. When he died, he left a body of written work that continues to inspire readers today.
Here are the highlights of his work I recommend to take advantage of The Fourth Way:
Being present requires us to constantly tend to the here and now. Rather than allowing our attention to drift into the future or the past, we notice what happens in each and every moment. We activate the five senses and watch life unfold before our eyes. Gurdjieff once memorably stated, “Work in the present heals the past and prepares for the future.”
This technique increases our ability to maintain constant presence. Most often, we walk through life unconsciously, as if we were zombies. We look at our external environment, but forget that we are active participants in in. Remembering ourselves works like this: Periodically throughout the day, take a moment to return our awareness internally to ourselves. Tune into the body and feel our grip on the earth. Recognize how we are occupying this specific space and time.
Struggle against ourselves.
This is a necessary process on the path of personal and spiritual development. Almost everyone has habits and tendencies that are self-destructive and neurotic. Most often, these habits emerge during early childhood as primary defense mechanisms to traumatic experiences. Gurdjieff called the resulting personality types our “primary dispositions.” If not balanced by integrating an equal and opposite disposition, they have a disastrous influence on our lives. To find the antidote to these primary dispositions, take his specialized enneagram test.
To be clear, this does not mean self-flagellation or mortification of the flesh. Intentionally suffering means persisting in spite of any depression or anxiety that we possess. The only way to resolve anxiety is endure situations that make us anxious, survive, and thereby increase our tolerance. The only way to resolve depression is pick ourselves up out of bed every morning and force a smile until it gradually becomes genuine.
Break our routines.
Breaking our routines requires that we divert from our usual selection of activities. Gurdjieff felt that to transform energy and avoid stagnation, we must overcome our attachments and aversions to a particular way of life. It can start simply. Eat at a different restaurant. Wear a different style of clothes. Buy a different brand of shampoo, or try a new exercise.
Over the past three years, I have adopted a combination of these methods to develop myself, and my efforts have been met with considerable success. While I have not fully awakened in the spiritual sense, I have developed a much greater capacity for attention—I sail through my meditation and mindfulness practices and I have developed a much greater certainty over the meaning of life.
Author: Henry Bond
Image: Jinho Jung / Flickr
Editor: Danielle Beutell