George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

Essays > Personalities

An essay by Marc and Bhagawati.

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff was born to a Caucasian-Greek father and Armenian mother in Alexandropol (now Gyumri, Armenia), then part of the Russian Empire. The exact date of his birth remains unknown; conjectures range from 1866 to 1877.

Gurdjieff was an influential spiritual teacher who taught that most humans live their lives in a state of hypnotic ‘waking sleep’, but that it is possible to transcend to a higher state of consciousness and achieve full human potential. At different times in his life, Gurdjieff formed and closed various schools around the world to teach The Work. He claimed that the teachings he brought to the West from his own experiences and early travels expressed the truth found in ancient religions and wisdom teachings relating to self-awareness in people’s daily lives and humanity’s place in the universe.


In early adulthood, according to his own accounts, Gurdjieff’s curiosity led him to travel to Central Asia, Egypt, Iran, India, Tibet and Rome, before returning to Russia for a few years in 1912. He was always unforthcoming about the source of his teachings. The only accounts of his wanderings appear in his book Meetings with Remarkable Men, where he also writes of having been supporting himself during his travels with odd jobs and trading schemes such as dyeing hedgerow birds yellow and selling them as canaries.


Julia Ostrowska          de Hartmanns
Julia Ostrowska                                   Thomas and Olga de Hartmann

On New Year’s Day 1912, Gurdjieff arrived in Moscow and attracted his first students and in the same year married Polish Julia Ostrowska (his ‘uniquely beloved wife’) and accepted P. D. Ouspensky as a pupil; in 1916 composer Thomas de Hartmann and his wife Olga joined as well. At that time he had about 30 students. Ouspensky already had a reputation as a writer on mystical subjects and had conducted his own, ultimately disappointing, search for wisdom in the East.

P.D. Ouspensky
P.D. Ouspensky

In the midst of the revolutionary upheaval in Russia, Gurdjieff left Petrograd in 1917 to return to his family home in Alexandropol.

In March 1918, Ouspensky separated from Gurdjieff, settling in England and teaching the Fourth Way in his own right. The two men were to have a very ambivalent relationship for decades to come.

Georgia and Turkey

de Salzmanns      Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg
A. and J. de Salzmann                     Olga Ivanova Hinzenberg

In spring 1919, Gurdjieff met the artist Alexandre de Salzmann and his wife Jeanne and accepted them as pupils. Assisted by Jeanne de Salzmann, Gurdjieff gave the first public demonstration of his Sacred Dances (Movements at the Tbilisi Opera House) and continued to concentrate on his still unstaged ballet, The Struggle of the Magicians. Thomas de Hartmann (who had made his debut before Czar Nicholas II of Russia years before that) worked on the music for the ballet, and Olga Ivanovna Hinzenberg (who years later wed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright) practiced the ballet dances. In 1919, Gurdjieff established his first Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man.

In late May 1920, when political conditions in Georgia changed and the old order was crumbling, his party travelled to Batumi on the Black Sea coast and then crossed by ship to Istanbul. Gurdjieff rented an apartment near the Molavieh Order of Sufis (founded by Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi), where Gurdjieff, Ouspensky and Thomas de Hartmann witnessed the sema ceremony of the Whirling Dervishes. In Istanbul, Gurdjieff also met his future pupil Capt. John G. Bennett, then head of British Military Intelligence in Constantinople, who describes his impression of Gurdjieff as follows:

J. G Bennett
J. G Bennett

“It was there that I first met Gurdjieff in the autumn of 1920, and no surroundings could have been more appropriate. In Gurdjieff, East and West do not just meet. Their difference is annihilated in a world outlook which knows no distinctions of race or creed. This was my first, and has remained one of my strongest impressions. A Greek from the Caucasus, he spoke Turkish with an accent of unexpected purity, the accent that one associates with those born and bred in the narrow circle of the Imperial Court. His appearance was striking enough even in Turkey, where one saw many unusual types. His head was shaven, immense black moustache, eyes which at one moment seemed very pale and at another almost black. Below average height, he gave nevertheless an impression of great physical strength.”


In August 1921 and 1922, Gurdjieff travelled around Western Europe, lecturing and giving demonstrations of his work in various cities, such as Berlin and London. After an unsuccessful attempt to gain British citizenship, Gurdjieff established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man south of Paris at the Prieuré des Basses Loges in Fontainebleau-Avon near the famous Château de Fontainebleau.

The Prieuré

This once-impressive but somewhat crumbling mansion, set in extensive grounds, housed an entourage of several dozen, including some of Gurdjieff’s remaining relatives and some White Russian refugees. The generally intellectual and middle-class types who were attracted to his teaching often found the Prieuré’s spartan accommodation and emphasis on hard labour in the grounds disconcerting. Gurdjieff was putting into practice his teaching that man needs to develop physically, emotionally and intellectually, hence the mixture of lectures, music, dance, and manual work. Older pupils noticed how the teaching differed from the complex metaphysical ‘system’ that had been taught in Russia. In addition to the physical hardships, his personal behaviour towards pupils could be ferocious.

Gurdjieff taught that group efforts both enhance and surpass individual efforts, preparing them to practice a new psychology of evolution. To accomplish this, he declared that he needed to constantly innovate and create new alarm clocks to awaken his sleeping students. Students regularly met with group leaders; both separately and in group meetings, and came together for ‘work periods’ where intensive conscious labour, connected with the forms mentioned above. Work in the kitchen was a special task and sometimes elaborate meals were prepared.

Katherine MansfieldDuring this period, Gurdjieff acquired notoriety as “the man who killed Katherine Mansfield,” a prominent modernist writer of short fiction who was born in New Zealand. Mansfield was a guest, rather than a pupil of Gurdjieff, and not required to take part in the rigorous routine of the Institute, but attempted to apply some of Gurdjieff’s teachings to her own life before dying of tuberculosis in 1923, aged 34. James Moore (a fellow of the Royal Asiatic Society and leading authority on Gurdjieff) and Ouspensky convincingly show that Mansfield knew she would soon die and that Gurdjieff made her last days happy and fulfilling.

First car accident and visits to America

In 1924, while driving alone from Paris to Fontainebleau, he had a near-fatal car accident. Nursed by his wife and mother, he made a slow and painful recovery against medical expectations.

In 1925 Gurdjieff’s mother died, and his wife developed cancer; she died in June 1926 as a result of Gurdjieff’s well-intentioned but medically unsound radium water and magnetic treatments. Gurdjieff was in New York from November 1925 to the spring of 1926, where he succeeded in raising over $100,000; in all he was to make six or seven trips to the U.S. during which he alienated a number of people with his brash and undisguised demands for money. Despite his fund-raising efforts in America, the Prieuré operation ran into debt and was shut down in 1932. Gurdjieff constituted a new teaching group in Paris.

Women of the RopeDuring most of the Thirties and Forties in Paris, an extraordinary group of several strong-willed women, mostly writers and mostly American, who also happened to be lesbians except for one, and very famous in their own right, became students of Gurdjieff, meeting privately with him as a small band that called themselves The Rope, because Gurdjieff told its members to help one another like mountain climbers making a difficult ascent. Their ties with Gurdjieff radically changed their lives, their writing styles, and their relationships to each other. Several of the members were also close acquaintances of Gertrude Stein.

From his thirty-seven years of work in the West, The Rope remains his most enigmatic group.


Final years

After the war, Gurdjieff tried to reconnect with his former pupils. Ouspensky was reluctant, but after his death (October 1947), his widow advised his remaining pupils to see Gurdjieff in Paris. Gurdjieff suffered a second car accident in 1948, but again made an unexpected recovery.

Gurdjieff died on October 29, 1949 and is buried in the cemetery at Fontainebleau-Avon. He had fathered seven known natural children.

The Teachings

Gurdjieff claimed that people cannot perceive reality in their current states because they do not possess consciousness but rather live in a state of a hypnotic ‘waking sleep’.

Man lives
his life
in sleep,
and in sleep
he dies.

As a result of this condition, each person perceives things from a completely subjective perspective. He asserted that people in their typical state function as unconscious automatons, but that one can “wake up” and become a different sort of human being altogether.

Gurdjieff argued that many of the existing forms of religious and spiritual tradition on Earth had lost connection with their original meaning and vitality and so could no longer serve humanity in the way that had been intended at their inception. As a result humans were failing to realize the truths of ancient teachings and were instead becoming more and more like automatons, susceptible to control from outside and increasingly capable of otherwise unthinkable acts of mass psychosis such as World War I. At best, the various surviving sects and schools could provide only a one-sided development, which did not result in a fully integrated human being.

According to him, only one dimension of the three dimensions of the person – namely, either the emotions, or the physical body, or the mind – tends to develop in such schools and sects, and generally at the expense of the other faculties or centres, as Gurdjieff called them. As a result these paths fail to produce a properly balanced human being. Furthermore, anyone wishing to undertake any of the traditional paths to spiritual knowledge (which Gurdjieff reduced to three – namely the path of the fakir, the path of the monk, and the path of the yogi) were required to renounce life in the world. Gurdjieff thus developed a ‘Fourth Way’ which would be amenable to the requirements of modern people living modern lives in Europe and America. Instead of developing body, mind, or emotions separately, Gurdjieff’s discipline worked on all three to promote comprehensive and balanced inner development.


Parallel with other spiritual traditions, Gurdjieff taught that one must expend considerable effort to effect the transformation that leads to awakening. The effort that one puts into practice Gurdjieff referred to as The Work or Work on Oneself. His teaching addressed the question of humanity’s place in the universe and the importance of developing latent potentialities – regarded as our natural endowment as human beings but rarely brought to fruition. He taught that higher levels of consciousness, higher bodies, inner growth and development are real possibilities that nonetheless require conscious work to achieve.

He gave a distinct meaning to various ancient texts such as the Bible and many religious prayers. He claimed that those texts possess a very different meaning than what is commonly attributed to them. “Sleep not.” “Awake, for you know not the hour.” and “The Kingdom of Heaven is Within.” are examples of biblical statements which point to a psychological teaching whose essence has been forgotten.

Gurdjieff taught people how to increase and focus their attention and energy in various ways and to minimize daydreaming and absentmindedness. According to his teaching, this inner development in oneself is the beginning of a possible further process of change, the aim of which is to transform people into what Gurdjieff believed they ought to be.

Distrusting ‘morality’, which he describes as varying from culture to culture, often contradictory and hypocritical, Gurdjieff greatly stressed the importance of conscience.

To provide conditions in which inner attention could be exercised more intensively, Gurdjieff also taught his pupils ‘sacred dances’ or ‘movements’, later known as the Gurdjieff Movements, which they performed together as a group. He also left a body of music, inspired by what he had heard in visits at remote monasteries and other places, written for piano in collaboration with Thomas de Hartmann. He also used various exercises, such as the “Stop” exercise, to prompt self-observation in his students. Other shocks to help awaken his pupils from constant daydreaming were always possible at any moment.


The Work is in essence training in the development of consciousness. During his lifetime Gurdjieff used a number of different methods and materials, including meetings, music, movements, writings, lectures, and innovative forms of group and individual work. Part of their function was to undermine and undo the ingrained habit patterns of the mind and bring about moments of insight. Since each individual has different requirements, Gurdjieff did not have a one-size-fits-all approach, and he adapted and innovated as circumstance required. In Russia he was described as keeping his teaching confined to a small circle, whereas in Paris and North America he gave numerous public demonstrations.

Gurdjieff felt that the traditional methods of self-knowledge – those of the fakir, monk, and yogi (acquired, respectively, through pain, devotion, and study) – were inadequate on their own and often led to various forms of stagnation and one-sidedness. His methods were designed to augment the traditional paths with the purpose of hastening the developmental process. The teacher, possessing consciousness, sees the individual requirements of the disciple and sets tasks that he knows will result in a transformation of consciousness in that individual. Instructive historical parallels can be found in the annals of Zen Buddhism, where teachers employed a variety of methods (sometimes highly unorthodox) to bring about the arising of insight in the student.

Music and Movements

The Gurdjieff music divides into three distinct periods. The first period is the early music, including music from the ballet Struggle of the Magicians and music for early Movements, dating to the years around 1918.

Gurdjieff observing movements in Jessmin Howarth’s Dalcroze studio, Paris 1922.
To Gurdjieff’s left are Madame Ouspensky, Catherine and Maurice Nicoll.

The second period of music, for which Gurdjieff arguably became best known, written in collaboration with Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann, is described as the Gurdjieff-de Hartmann music. Dating to the mid-1920s, it offers a rich repertory with roots in Caucasian and Central Asian folk and religious music, Russian Orthodox liturgical music, and other sources. Since the publication of four volumes of this piano repertory there has been a wealth of new recordings, including orchestral versions of music prepared by Gurdjieff and de Hartmann for the Movements demonstrations of 1923–24.

The last musical period is improvised harmonium music which often followed the dinners Gurdjieff held in his Paris apartment during the Occupation and immediate post-war years; until his death in 1949 Gurdjieff composed some 200 pieces in collaboration with de Hartmann.

Movements, or sacred dances, constitute an integral part of The Work. Gurdjieff sometimes referred to himself as a ‘teacher of dancing’ and gained initial public notice for his attempts to put on a ballet in Moscow called Struggle of the Magicians. Movements are shown in a film scene in the Peter Brook movie Meetings with Remarkable Men:

Essay by Marc and Bhagawati

Credit source: Wikipedia

Related discourse – Gurdjieff – One of the Most Misunderstood Men in the World
Related article – The Gurdjieff Movements in the World of Osho

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