Category Archives: Gurdjieff Work

Reading Gurdjieff: Attention Please!

Reading All & Everything

Another purpose that Mr. Gurdjieff states for the first series of his writings, besides merciless destruction, is developing attention. In a group meeting transcript, a pupil asks Mr. Gurdjieff for a means to develop his attention:

RZ: I asked you last Thursday if there exists a means for developing attention. You told me that attention was in proportion to self-remembering. You told me to look particularly within myself. I ask you this especially because I was not able to put my attention on the reading of Beelzebub. I understood in the course of this week that the attention is the ‘I’. So many different ‘me’s; so many different attentions. I would like to ask you if there are special means to develop the attention other than those for developing the ‘I am’.

GURDJIEFF: I can tell you one thing: the means do not exist. I don’t know any. But today I want to explain everything simply. For example, in Beelzebub I know that there is everything that needs to be known. It’s a very interesting book. Everything is there: everything that exists, everything that has existed and everything that can exist. The beginning, the end, all the secrets of creation of the world— it is all there. But it must be understood and understanding depends on the individual. The more a man has been instructed in a certain way, the more he understands.

Objectively, each one can understand according to his level, because this is an objective book, and everyone ought to understand something in it. One person will understand only one part in it and another a thousand times more. Now, find the means to place your attention on all of Beelzebub in order to understand it. This will be your task, and it is a good way to maintain real attention. If you can put real attention on Beelzebub, you will be able to have real attention in life.

You did not know this secret. In Beelzebub there is everything. I have said that before—even how to make an omelet. Among other things, this is also explained; and at the same time, there is not a word in Beelzebub about cooking. So, put your attention on the reading of Beelzebub, a different attention from the one you are used to, and you will be able to have the same attention in life. 1

If you have attempted to read Beelzebub’s Tales, you will know that it contains very, very long thoughts. The first sentence of the first chapter is 122 words long. The entire book is 1238 pages long. Neologisms mentioned in one chapter are defined in another chapter. There are questions raised that are not answered until hundreds of pages later.

The quality of attention required to grasp these long thoughts is not the kind we are accustomed to using in ordinary life. The reading of Beelzebub’s Tales is an exercise to develop real attention. And this development is not for its own sake—it is for the purpose of understanding.

This is not intended to be a solo venture. Mr. Gurdjieff tells the pupil: “The more a man has been instructed in a certain way, the more he understands”. Understanding depends on instruction, and instruction depends on instructors and schools of the Work.


1 Paris Meetings 1943, p. 233-4.

Reading Gurdjieff: Merciless Destruction

First Series: To destroy, mercilessly...

The frontmatter of Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson reads as follows:

“FIRST SERIES: To destroy, mercilessly, without any compromises whatsoever, in the mentation and feelings of the reader, the beliefs and views, by centuries rooted in him, about everything existing in the world…”

Gurdjieff’s first stated purpose for the first series of his writings is destruction. While Gurdjieff elsewhere states other purposes for the book—such as gaining information, strengthening attention, and raising questions—here he states its purpose is destruction.

What is to be destroyed? We are told the targets of the destruction are the reader’s beliefs and views. Further, we read that these beliefs and views are not a recent problem. They are not modern, at least not in the sense we tend to regard as modern. These beliefs and views apparently have been mentally and emotionally implanted in us for centuries, handed down and repeated over and over until they are for us invisible and pervasive attitudes and ironclad, self-evident truths.

This destruction we are told will be merciless—in other words, without pity and utterly ruthless. Even more, this destruction will be without any compromises whatsoever—nothing is to be spared, no negotiations will result in concessions, and no attempts at justification will yield exceptions.

Which beliefs and views are to be destroyed? Our beliefs and views about everything existing in the world. The subtitle of the book is not facetiously named: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man. This book is for those who suspect that, on the whole, and for a long time, individually and collectively, at its roots, something has been terribly wrong with our way of life. And that the solution begins with subjecting our own beliefs and views to a thorough examination and eradication.

Gurdjieff and Games, Part 1

Gurdjieff said “there is everything” in his book Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.1 In addition, this book is subtitled “An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man” and has the stated purpose of the merciless destruction of all our long-rooted beliefs and views about everything.

Putting these statements to a small test, I ask a few questions of narrow interest to myself (and I hope others): “What does Beelzebub’s Tales have to say about games? What objective and impartial criticism is offered about games? What ‘merciless destruction’ must our beliefs and views on the subject of games undergo?”

A survey of the text reveals that games are mentioned many times: in children’s games2, in games played at the French fairs3, in ‘games’ played by the Greeks and Romans4, and in the English ‘sport’5. Some games are even mentioned by name: baccarat6, roulette7, and snip-snap-snorum8.

In one line in the first series—I would say throwaway line, but in a consciously written book, there is nothing trivial to throw away—Gurdjieff writes:

“I used to visit them often at their home and enjoyed playing chess with this senator—as is customary there among what are called ‘respectable people.’ ” 9

The character speaking here is the eponymous Beelzebub, Gurdjieff’s representative of a highly developed person with a very high degree of reason. In this line, Beelzebub offers no criticism or dismissal of the activity of playing this game. In fact, he says he enjoyed it.

This is the same Beelzebub who said:

“I decided to carry out the said task [convincing humans to end their practice of animal sacrifice] at all costs and to be worthy, if only by this explicit aid to our UNIQUE-BURDEN-BEARING-ENDLESSNESS, of becoming a particle, though an independent one, of everything existing in the Great Universe.” 10

Beelzebub’s serious task did not carry the cost of abandoning what might be considered by some as a frivolous or idle activity, nor did it make him unworthy, as no doubt his conscience would have stopped him from such an act if it were unworthy. Rather, his was a wise choice, since we are told it was customary among those people to play chess. And in order to carry out his task, it was necessary for him to blend in by observing customs, as Gurdjieff did at times, insofar as they did not violate commandment or conscience.11 

However, this is not a blanket endorsement of games. We must take care not to “make an elephant out of a flea” or be found guilty of proof-texting. While games in general may be innocuous, due to the human condition, games and our relationship with them can go terribly wrong. More on that later.


1 Paris Meetings 1943, p. 234.
2 Beelzebub’s Tales, p. 418.
3 ibid., p. 693.
4 ibid., p. 418-420.
5 ibid., p. 432-448.
6 ibid., p. 100.
7 ibid., p. 100, 350, 693.
8 ibid., p. 693.
9 ibid., p. 1031.
10 ibid., p. 183.
11 ibid., p. 23.

Reading Gurdjieff: Biographies and Anecdotes

Biographies

There are several biographies about G.I. Gurdjieff, of varying quality, from yellow journalism to reasonably verifiable. In my opinion, the following are the better biographies:

  • Gurdjieff: The Anatomy of a Myth, by James Moore. Written in a florid prose style— nevertheless, a fairly thorough biography.
  • Gurdjieff Reconsidered, by Roger Lipsey. A recent biography from a member of the Gurdjieff Foundation, with some insight into some of the organizations’ missteps after Gurdjieff’s death.
  • Georgi Ivanovitch Gurdjieff: The Man, The Teaching, His Mission, by William Patrick Patterson. Less a biography and more of a collection of bare facts, but well-organized and presented with little opinion inserted.

Anecdotes

There are many collections of anecdotes of pupils with Gurdjieff. The better ones, in my opinion, are from longtime pupils of Gurdjieff who were reluctant to write them down but were encouraged by those around them to preserve their stories in writing before they passed away.

  • Gurdjieff: A Master In Life, by Tcheslaw Tchekhovitch. Followed Gurdjieff from 1920 until his teacher’s death.
  • The Gurdjieff Years: Recollections of Louise Goepfert March. Followed Gurdjieff from 1929 until her teacher’s death, translating his writings into German.

Reading Gurdjieff: Primers on Work Concepts

Outside of Gurdjieff’s own writings, there are a number of books available that introduce basic work concepts.

  • A Simple Explanation of Work Ideas, by Maurice Nicoll. Short and to the point.
  • Gurdjieff: A New Interpretation, by Wojciech Konrad Kulczyk PhD. Includes material from Gurdjieff’s own writings rather than relying too heavily on Ouspensky’s exposition.
  • Gurdjieff: An Approach to His Ideas, by Michel Waldberg. Similarly includes material from Gurdjieff’s own writings.
  • Towards Awakening: An Approach to the Teaching Left by Gurdjieff, by Jean Vaysse. Also short and to the point.
  • Gurdjieff: The Key Concepts, by Sophia Wellbeloved. A reference manual of concepts. Includes some short biographies of Gurdjieff’s pupils, various groups that formed after Gurdjieff’s death, and the passive deviation from Gurdjieff’s teaching found in “New Work”.
  • The Psychology of Man’s Possible Evolution, and
    The Cosmology of Man’s Possible Evolution, by P.D. Ouspensky, his particular exposition of Gurdjieff’s ideas.

Take these with a grain of salt. Learn what Gurdjieff taught from reading his own writings and working out your own understanding with guidance from a school and instructors rather than relying solely on another’s exposition of Gurdjieff’s teaching.

Reading Gurdjieff: Primary Texts

For familiarizing oneself with Gurdjieff’s writings, the following are a list of the primary texts, first publication dates, and most recent available printings of his works. Hardcover printing is assumed unless otherwise noted.


Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson
All and Everything, First Series.

  • 1950 Harcourt, Brace & Company or Routledge & Kegan Paul
  • 1993 Two Rivers Press
  • 1999 Penguin Compass (paperback)

Meetings with Remarkable Men
All and Everything, Second Series.

  • 1963 Routledge & Kegan Paul or E.P. Dutton.
  • 1991 Penguin Compass (paperback)

 


Life Is Real Only Then, When “I AM”
All and Everything, Third Series.

  • 1975 E.P. Dutton (private printing, missing the last eight pages contained in later editions)
  • 1981 Routledge & Kegan Paul or E.P. Dutton
  • 1999 Penguin Arkana (paperback)

The Herald of Coming Good

  • 1933 (private printing)
  • 2017 Book Studio


Transcripts

Authorized transcripts of group meetings can give the reader additional theoretical knowledge of the problems that students face and how Gurdjieff worked with them.

Paris Meetings 1943

Groupes de Paris, Tome I: 1943 (French edition only)
Groupes de Paris, Tome II: 1944 (French edition only)

  • 2020 Éditions Éoliennes (softcover)

Electronic Versions

There are many electronic versions of primary texts available for download but determining their edition or copy accuracy may present problems to the reader.

Some reasonably reliable electronic versions are available at the Spiritual Sun.

Misattributed and Unauthorized Texts

Excluded from the primary text list are texts with misattributed authorship to Gurdjieff, such as In Search of Being: The Fourth Way to Consciousness. Also excluded from the primary text list are unauthorized revisions, such as the 1992 Penguin hardcover version of Beelzebub’s Tales, which was significantly altered from the author’s approved English version.

Review of G.I. Gurdjieff Paris Meetings 1943

Paris Meetings 1943

G.I. Gurdjieff, Paris Meetings, 1943, published by Dolmen Meadow Editions in 2017, provides an English translation of French transcripts from sixty-eight group meetings conducted in Mr. Gurdjieff’s rue des Colonels Renard apartment in Paris, France from January 7 to December 30, 1943.

The importance of this text must not be underestimated as a primary source, and Mr. Gurdjieff himself raises the estimation of its importance in an aside to the transcriptionist, addressed here and throughout the text as ‘Prosecutor’:

“Gurdjieff: ‘Prosecutor’, everything must be written in good French. These are abstract things. But if you can remember everything, it will be useful for everyone. I am the author of Beelzebub, neither more nor less. If I find material for myself in what you write, I will be able to do new things with it. Many things for the future humanity depend on you. And it is true, all joking aside.” (p. 306)

With attentive reading, Paris Meetings 1943 can serve as good material especially for teachers of the Work—how meetings were organized, how they were conducted, how exercises are given, how to observe and diagnose symptoms of problems students have, and how to direct students to work on themselves—not automatically but consciously and heuristically—in addition to the contents of the teaching itself, useful to teacher and student alike.

Astute readers may pick up on themes given more significant weight here compared to earlier materials: having remorse of conscience, engaging in the duties of parents and children, the importance of preparation and relaxation before exercises, playing a role in life, and the bringing of sensation, feeling, and thinking into contact and harmony through the use of attention.

A caution to readers: Many exercises, tasks, and much advice is given in this text. Exercises, tasks, and advice given to students by Mr. Gurdjieff is tailored to the individual needs and capabilities of each student. Therefore, it is unwise to undertake exercises, tasks, or advice intended for another student without the guidance of a teacher.

Paris Meetings 1943 is a welcome addition to the primary source texts of Gurdjieff’s teaching. If more transcripts of subsequent meetings still exist, I look forward to the translation and publishing of additional meeting transcripts in the future.


One small thing was lacking from Paris Meetings 1943—an index. I have created one, available for purchase:

G.I. Gurdjieff Paris Meetings 1943 – INDEX

First Encounter with Mr. Gurdjieff

The first time I can recall learning about Mr. Gurdjieff was in 1995. My wife and I were honeymooning in Vermont. While strolling along Church Street, we wandered into a book shop. There I found a book entitled “The Lucid Dreamer” by Malcom Godwin. At the time, I was fascinated with dreams and with lucid dreaming in particular. The book was full of surreal art, quotes, and anecdotes of persons who in one way or another made some contribution to the topic of dreams and sleep.

One particular sidebar in the book struck me. Pictured in it, nearly in profile, was an old yet strong man, with a shaved head, a white upturned moustache, and dark eyes gazing as if into the distant future.

Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

Georgei Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

The sidebar read:

Georges Ivanovitch Gurdjieff was a charismatic teacher, writer, and mystic who maintained that everyone was actually asleep, and only when awakened we would understand that we were only dreaming we were awake.”

For me, this was a new idea, that everyone was asleep and must wake up—everyone including myself! What does it mean that everyone is asleep? The idea stuck with me, though its full weight would not be impressed upon me until many years later.