George Gurdjieff is one of the brightest figures of contemporary spirituality, and one of the most radical, controversial and contradictory masters ever known. He never gained much popularity, because of the highly innovative and radical character of his teaching, and because he preferred to work with a few chosen disciples rather than having a big following. He was misunderstood and judged by many of his contemporaries, including his own disciples – because he was trying to bring to the western society a completely new type of teaching, that it never knew before.
Gurdjieff was born in Armenia, which was then a part of Russia, from a greek father and armenian mother. The area where he grew up had a great ethnic, cultural and religious diversity. In his childhood he learned a few languages, and by the end of his life he fluently spoke about 10 languages. In his youth he was reading a lot, developed interest in mysticism, and led by curiosity, he went on traveling to find answers for his questions. For many years he was traveling across different countries of Central Asia, Iran, Egypt, India, Tibet, learning from different mystics and mystery schools. He learned to support himself with all kinds of time-jobs and trading schemes, and acquired good business skills. Apparently he was mostly influenced by the practices of sufis (muslim mystics), though he himself never mentioned clearly the sources of his teachings. In 1913 he came back to Russia and attracted his first disciples. From the beginning he was known as an extremely strict and demanding teacher, who was constantly provoking and testing his disciples. After the russian revolution the country became unstable, so Gurdjieff and his group had to change a few places, then they moved to Georgia and finally to Turkey. The next year Gurdjieff went to travel around Europe giving lectures and demonstrations of his work. He unsuccessfully tried to get a british citizenship, and finally settled in France, where he established his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man. He purchased a small estate south of Paris and stayed there with a diverse group of a few dozen people. His disciples remember that period as a time of spartan life and hard labour, since Girdjieff was practically applying his idea of complex physical, emotional and intellectual development.
In 1924 Gurdjieff had a near-fatal car accident, but against the expectations of the doctors managed to recover. During the recovery he formally dismissed his Institute, but in fact he just got rid of some of his less dedicated disciples. After the recovery he starts writing his main work called “All and everything”, according to his own principles he works in the noisy cafes to develop the ability to concentrate. In this period he made numerous trips to the United States, where he already had some disciples, and managed to raise quite a big mount of money for his work. Despite that his estate eventually went into debt and his school was closed. Gurdjieff formed a new group in Paris, all the members were women. After a few years this group was also dismissed.
Gurdjieff continued teaching groups of disciples in his small apartment, even during the World War 2. After the war he managed to reconnect with many of his old disciples, which left him years ago. A year before his death Gurdjieff had another car accident, when he nearly died, but again made an unexpected recovery. Till his last days he was active and even made two trips to the United States.
The contemporaries describe him as a man of iron will, magnetic personality and great physical strength. His behavior was often considered to be immoral, or rather he didn’t take morality into consideration at all; for example, he was known for seducing women and had at least 7 unregistered children. He “had a total disregard for the value of mainstream religion, philanthropic work and the value of doing right or wrong in general.” The teachings of Gurdjieff are complicated, so is the language his books, which he deliberately wrote in a vague and allegorical manner; he said that reader has to work to find out the meaning. His central idea is that a man as he is lives in a state of sleep, complete unawareness, he doesn’t have a unified consciousness, and acts like a machine. Though everyone has an inborn self, that has to be developed through conscious effort, which he called “work”. All the religious teachings of the past work through one of the three centers (physical, emotional or intellectual), and therefore are creating an unbalanced individual. His teaching thus was called “The forth way”, which unifies three other ways to make the human being complete. The way to get out of a state of daydreaming is to develop awareness or consciousness through different exercises of “self-remembering”. One of the main elements of Gurdjieff’s work are the Sacred Dances, which are based on some traditional dances and Sufi practices. Each dance has a certain set of movements for different parts of the body, which are performed simultaneously on different rhythmic counts; that requires full concentration and presence during the performance. Each dance has a special music, which was composed by Gurjieff himself. The dances are performed in a group, the participants have to change the position according to a certain scheme, which makes the dances even more complicated. These exercises are meant to develop awareness and continuous presence in action. Gurdjieff was known for creating innovative methods and situations for teaching “on the spot”. These could be sudden shouts, abuse, irrational instructions and provocative behavior, which taught the disciple to stay always calm, present and untouched by any situation. Though Gurdjieff’s teachings had some influence on the intellectuals of his time, they still remain relatively unknown. There are a few foundations spreading his ideas and many small groups practicing Sacred Dances. His movement remained an enclosed mystery school, which seemingly failed – most of his long-time disciples eventually left him, being unable to stand his unusual methods of work.