Gurdjieff’s relations with his students and his behavior in general are among the main enigmas which those who try to understand him encounter. Much has been written about the situation of friction which he created for his students, and here everything seems to be more or less understandable. He would be rude to them; he could ridicule them rather brutally; he could create difficult conditions for their work and in general assign tasks that at first glance seemed unfulfillable. He knew how to create difficulties for those who were near him, and their endurance and acceptance of what was happening often was subject to a serious test for reliability. As a creation of a situation in which the student could work on the level of his being, on detaching from his reactions through awareness, such methods could be understood and one could somehow reconcile oneself to them or even become accustomed to them.
In all the recollections, their authors note that as a result of association with Gurdjieff or study with him, their level of being unquestionably grew. That is, as a Master, Gurdjieff was quite competent. The demonstration of the dances which he arranged for the public made quite a strong impression on people, and not for the least reason precisely because of the degree of mastery over themselves which the students demonstrated. The goal which he pursued in work with them, however, remained unclear even so, because many talented and devoted students were simply driven away or removed by him.
Gurdjieff himself wrote that his purpose in work with people was the continuation of research into the psychology and nature of man. In that case, all of his “Institutes for the Harmonious Development of Man” were supposed to pursue precisely this goal – that is, Gurdjieff made experiments and tested the action of various practices on the students, and sought proofs for some of his theories. I think that was in fact the case, but only in part. Understandably, you can make a fuss about ideas that shock society only for the sake of seeing its reaction. But alas, this reaction in all times is one and the same, and there is really nothing here to research. There was nothing in particular to research in human psychology, either, because Gurdjieff understood it perfectly even when he had only just begun teaching. As for experiments, every Master must make them in order to find the optimal method of work with people in a given time, in a given place. Some things always must be discovered anew, because the state of people’s minds and their general being dictates a choice of methods of teaching and also interaction with them. Furthermore, all these discoveries are made exclusively for the students themselves, in order to help them on the path to their own spiritual realization.
But teaching people was clearly not Gurdjieff’s main goal, because it was conducted strangely to some extent. That is, formally, everything was seemingly done correctly: there was a teaching – the Fourth Way – there was a goal – to awaken, to leave the state of a machine and become capable of “doing” – and there were methods – self-remembering and exercises that were supposed to develop the students. But it cannot be said that Gurdjieff consistently engaged in the creation of a spiritual school or something like it. More likely, he was trying in every way to avoid the real creation of such a thing.
The community which Gurdjieff founded on the Priory estate outside Paris, after emigrating from Russia, can serve as an example. The action was to a certain extent forced, because Russians students came with Gurdjieff to France, who at that moment simply had nowhere to live and nothing to live on. It is possible that Gurdjieff wanted to see what would turn out under conditions of close quarters and constant work, which, of course, had to be organized. At a certain time this was a real “school”: several dozen people gathered in one place, working on themselves in an extremely intensive regimen.
It was characteristic that Gurdjieff himself lived in Paris, coming to the Priory for several days a week. The students were occupied with heavy physical work for the improvement of the estate, and in the evenings, they would do the exercises. They were supposed to work to the limit of their strengths, in order to achieve an accelerated development of their being. Super-effort was what many strove for, because Gurdjieff demanded it of them. According to Gurdjieff, super-effort consisted of continuing to do something even when all your strength seemed to be exhausted. In the process of this overcoming of oneself, additional sources of energy were supposed to kick in, which in an ordinary state are inactive and not used in any way. A “second wind,” so to speak would come, and a person could continue to work as if he had not exhausted himself earlier, as if he had only begun to do the task. Such a practice helped to develop the will; to learn to overcome self-pity and to discover hidden forces within a person.
Many students who were able to make the required super-effort discovered such forces; moreover, transcendental experiences happened to them in this context. John Bennett in particular described such things. It must be said that the practice of super-effort exists in many mystical traditions. Super-effort can be connected to prayer, when a monk, for example, prays all night, while making a thousand prostrations – that is, kneeling down, touching his forehead to the floor and once again standing up to his full height. It has long been noted by mystics that when the physical body is exhausted, a person becomes more open to a higher impulse, and therefore practices requiring super-efforts from a person were developed practically everywhere. Well, Gurdjieff made the super-effort an ordinary matter for his students, and this worked for some of them.
The ”school” at the Priory existed for two years, and then Gurdjieff landed in an automobile accident. His condition was serious, and nearly a half year went into his recovery. As soon as he was better, he announced the end of the work at the Priory and proposed that his students go away altogether. Some immediately departed; some a little later, and about a third of the students ignored the instruction to leave the Priory. Somewhat later, Gurdjieff again began to work with them, but there was no longer any talk of any “school” or even Institute (as he loved to call his project). Then the Priory was sold for debts, and with that, the story of the organized and cohesive Work was ended for Gurdjieff. Could he have found money to rescue the estate and continue the Work in such a form? If he had wanted to, of course, he would have. Could he have continued such activity in another place? Yes, he could have, but again, he did not wish it. And it is quite understandable why that happened.
No matter what strange things Gurdjieff would tell about himself, and no matter how much he shrouded his past – it is entirely obvious that he passed his basic study with the Sufis. The Fourth Way was constructed on the principles of the Sufi Work, even with a corrective for the uniqueness of Gurdjieff’s approach. But the Sufi Way did not involve the creation of ashrams, communities or monasteries in which people permanently live and work. It takes place in the thick of daily life, where the seeker learns both patience and acceptance, and also the discovery of the Divine Presence and the manifestations of the Will of God. The Sufi Work does not take place in the artificially-created isolation of its participants, although sometimes, of course, they can retreat for the purpose of performing some sort of practices that require this.
When Gurdjieff created his community, in part he was at the mercy of circumstances and in part he wanted to see how all this undertaking would turn out. It became clear that even intensive work cannot change the factor of time, which is required for the development of a person and the acquiring by him of experience and the necessary level of being. It is impossible to jump over the internal limitations the mind bears within it, and in order to remove them, once again, a fair amount of time is required. Maintaining the functioning of a community entails not only material expenditures, but again, expenditures of time – and one must live in the community oneself, giving it a large part of one’s energy and life in general. If Gurdjieff had that purpose, and if precisely that purpose was the main one of his mission, then undoubtedly he would have achieved its fulfillment. It was just that his task was apparently something completely different. I would even put it this way: it is possible that Gurdjieff’s main purpose was not to teach his students, but to study their reaction to teaching and new knowledge.