And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.
Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually,
without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
How one chooses to live is of paramount importance to one finding meaning in their existence. Are we active participants in our lives or passive observers? When Hamlet ponders, “To be, or not to be,” is he not asking the most fundamental, existential question as it pertains to one's life?
I discovered what it meant “to be” in my early 20’s in Los Angeles when I was invited to attend a lecture given by Mervyn Brady, a European spiritual teacher, regarding a school of philosophical thought known as The Fourth Way. Little did I know, that lecture would change my life forever.
Life is only real then, when ‘I am.’
The Fourth Way is the term used for the teachings of the Greek-Armenian mystic and spiritual teacher, Georges Ivanovich Gurdjieff. Gurdjieff (1872?-1949) stated his teachings were truths regarding self-awareness that he discovered in ancient religions and teachings during his own personal quest for spiritual teachers, esoteric knowledge and enlightenment—a quest that lasted several decades and led him to remote regions of the Middle East, Asia and Africa.
Through lectures given in Europe and the United States, Gurdjieff amassed a faithful following. He eventually settled in France, where he established The Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, a school devoted to the spiritual development of its members.
Gurdjieff’s teachings have influenced an untold number of people all over the world. Some of the more prominent individuals include Henry Miller, Alan Watts, Frank Lloyd Wright, P.L. Travers, Kate Bush, Ram Dass, Rodney Collin, Timothy Leary and Idries Shah.
No discussion of Gurdjieff’s teachings would be complete without recognizing the contributions made by P.D. Ouspensky. Ouspensky (1878—1947) was a Russian philosopher and lecturer who was very interested in mysticism, esoteric knowledge, and higher dimensions of existence. He initially supported himself as a free-lance newspaper writer, but was beginning to achieve notoriety for a book he had written, TERTIUM ORGANUM, when he came into contact with Gurdjieff.
Ouspensky immediately recognized that Gurdjieff had the “special knowledge” he had been seeking. Years later, Ouspensky would publish IN SEARCH OF THE MIRACULOUS, a book intended to preserve Gurdjieff’s teachings as honestly, objectively, and as purely, as possible. Ouspensky was successful in his aim, and for many individuals, this book is their first introduction to the teachings of Gurdjieff. Ouspensky would eventually author several more books on the Fourth Way. His personal papers are currently held in the archives of the Yale University Library.
Without struggle, no progress no result.
The core of the Fourth Way teaching is, as Ouspensky writes, “man as we know him is not a completed being; that nature develops him only up to a certain point, and then leaves him, to develop further, by his own efforts and devices, or to live and die such as he was born, or to degenerate and lose capacity for development." The key point being, if one is to evolve spiritually, one must make the effort to do so. True consciousness does not happen to one, it is earned through diligent work on oneself.
Gurdjieff believed that man was not immortal by nature of his being born, but that he was capable of acquiring immortality through the purposeful effort and struggle of striving to live in a constant state of higher consciousness or self-awareness. Generally speaking, Gurdjieff knew of three prominent methods, or paths, in which man sought to achieve spiritual immortality: the way of the fakir, the way of the monk, and the way of the yogi.
The way of the fakir is the struggle with the physical body. Its focus is on the development of physical will-power over the body, and is typically sought through self-torture or other forms of physical suffering, such as remaining in uncomfortable positions for hours on end. However, Gurdjieff observed a problem with the way of the fakir; it neglected the development of the other two primary functions in man—the emotions and the intellect.
The way of the monk is the way of faith, of religious devotion and sacrifice. Its focus is on the elimination of all emotions, but one—the emotion of faith. Thus, monks spend many years in monasteries where all possessions have been surrendered, and their lives are devoted to their faith in God. As with the way of the fakir, Gurdjieff observed a problem with the way of the monk; it neglected work on the body and the intellect.
The way of the yogi is the way of the mind, of knowledge. Gurdjieff noted the problem with the way of the yogi was that it did not address mastery over the body or the emotions. Thus, the yogi could acquire special knowledge, but lacked the being to live the knowledge.
Gurdjieff observed a common theme in the way of the fakir, monk, and yogi—each required that one renounce worldly things and completely change one’s life. To utilize one of the three ways, one, “must give up his home, his family if he has one, renounce all the pleasures, attachments, and duties of life and go out into the desert, or into a monastery or a yogi school. From the very first day, from the very first step on his way, he must die to the world; only thus can he hope to attain anything on one of these ways.”
Gurdjieff verified that one already had everything they needed to begin their work—the struggle, the conditions necessary for spiritual growth and evolution were all contained within oneself. For example, through special exercises and with certain knowledge, one could focus on developing will over the physical body, while simultaneously working on the intellect and emotions. Thus, through the teachings of the Fourth Way, Gurdjieff educated his students on how to work on the body, emotions, and intellect without renouncing worldly things or removing oneself from society. Hence, the struggle for higher consciousness or increased self-awareness could be done anywhere, anytime, through the struggle with oneself.
Remember yourself always and everywhere.
Regarding every facet of Gurdjieff’s teaching, there remains one constant—the effort to self-remember. Without it, Gurdjieff’s teachings are incomplete, just words, mere knowledge. John Shirley, in his biography of Gurdjieff, writes, “The foundation of the edifice of Self-Remembering is sensing the self physically—really inhabiting the body in a way we don’t normally do; that is, we inhabit it with a consciously directed portion of our attention. The next level is an effort at being present enough so that one isn’t taken by dreaming and free association...We rarely feel ourselves in the present moment; normally we’re dreaming of something we wish to do or thinking of the past. Our attention is rarely in the Now.”
So, if man rarely exists in the here and now, where is he? The answer to this question is explained in the four states of consciousness.
Gurdjieff taught that there are four states of consciousness: sleep, waking state, self-consciousness, and objective consciousness. While all states are possible for man, he chiefly lives his entire life in only the first two—sleep and waking state.
The first state is sleep, which is our state of consciousness when we retire to bed in the evening and doze off into unconsciousness.
The second state is waking state. This refers to the state we are in when we awaken from the first state. Gurdjieff said this was just another form of the first state because one was rarely, if ever, really awake even in this state of consciousness due to daydreaming, identification, and imagination.
The third state is self-remembering or self-consciousness. These moments typically happen to one, especially in highly emotional states, or in moments of danger. Gurdjieff stated man actually believes he possesses this state when, in reality, an effort must be made to experience it.
The fourth state is objective consciousness. Gurdjieff stated that in this state of consciousness, one sees things as they are. To this, Ouspensky wrote, “In the religions of all nations there are indications of the possibility of a state of consciousness of this kind which is called ‘enlightenment’ and various other names but which cannot be described in words. But the only right way to objective consciousness is through the development of self-consciousness...The fourth state of consciousness in man means an altogether different state of being; it is the result of inner growth and of long and difficult work on oneself.”
Without self knowledge, without understanding the working and
functions of his machine, man cannot be free, he cannot govern
himself and he will always remain a slave.
For Gurdjieff, one could not begin to work on oneself, without first “knowing oneself.” The way to knowing oneself was to constantly be aware of what one was doing, thinking, and feeling.
In addition, his pupils were taught to suppress negative emotions, such as anger, jealousy, rage, boredom, imagination, and daydreaming. By struggling against these mechanical tendencies, one could develop an inner strength that, in time, could be the catalyst to enabling one to experience the third state of consciousness at will.
Thus, for Gurdjieff, in any given moment one has a choice—to remain asleep to their lives, or to make an active effort to struggle against one’s natural tendencies, and attempt to awaken to their existence. Simply put, in every moment of our lives we can choose “to be, or not to be.”
I have mentioned only a few of the fundamental key ideas regarding Gurdjieff’s teachings. Having read multitudes of books on the Fourth Way, and studied and applied his philosophy for over 30 years, needless to say, it has and continues to have, a huge impact on my life.
The practice of self-remembering (being present) forces me to question who and what I am, and my purpose in life. It has made me more compassionate, empathic, loving, accepting, and more authentic. The Fourth Way became the foundation for my own spiritual work, and most importantly, with the aid of my personal spiritual teacher, paved the way for my own spiritual awakening.