An open letter, from Mike Readshaw.
Ouspensky, Gurdjieff, and their Two Teachings!
Fifteeen years ago, in the year 2000, my wife died of cancer, leaving with me five very young children, the eldest aged seven, and the youngest, only nine months. Since then, working as a teacher of Mathematics, in Secondary Schools, here in the North of England, I have struggled to bring up those children, myself, as what is called a “single parent,” despite the disbelief and total lack of assistance of the authorities, who deemed such a situation, impossible.
In the year 2009, I decided, inspired by my reading of Gurdjieff’s book ” Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” and in particular the example exhibited there within, of Ashiata Shiemash, whose initiates had to persuade one hundred others, in order themselves to pass to the level of “Great Initiates,” to use my spare time, in my circumstances, to persuade one hundred other people simply to read “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.” I deemed this a sufficiently difficult task.
It soon became clear to me that to encourage the ordinary man in the street to read this book was, without the considerable resources of a supportive “Gurdjieff Group,” impossible. However, another great realisation dawned upon me me, and was, in the course of time, not only confirmed, but stablished as an absolute law, and this was that virtually no one in the Gurdjieff Tradition, however at that time I defined that, had actually read this book, “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” and absolutely no one, as a categorical law, based their supposed “Work upon Oneself” upon the teachings of this book. It occured to me therefore, that my task was, to consecrate what available time I had in my circumstances, over the next five years, to persuading, by all kinds of both open and devious means, those nominally in the Gurdjieff “Work,” virtually if not all of whom had not read this book, to themselves actually read this book as Gurdjieff intended. Once read, it was then up to them as supposed individuals whether they then made this book the centre of their lives, or not.
I spoke at Gurdjieff conferences when possible, I talked personally with individuals, according to their understanding, and I began to put, initially at least, some rather naive talks, made by me, on a youtube channel. Later, as I developed in sophistication, simply according to my experience over the flow of time, I was able later to use Gurdjieff’s own maxim – wherever there is satisfaction, I create non-satisfaction – to have some real fun on this youtube channel.
I had set myself, at the beginning, according to my situation at the time, and my own personal resources, a time limit of five years. That time has now passed, and my youtube channel has been deleted, and, of course, my attempts now to speak at Gurdjieff conferences, where I would be a disturbing, even awakening influence, and hence, undesirable, have ceased.
However, I would like here to record some impressions, which I consider valuable, that I reached during those five years, and which I now also consider as established truths.
There are two, completely different teachings, now associated with Gurdjieff, each having almost nothing in common with the other. The relationship between them is defined as the relationship between the mouse and the elephant. There are those who, considering both have four legs, their grey colouring, and the fact that both have a tail, consider these two animals as identical, and go to great lengths and, indeed, as I have found, to any disreputable lengths, to prove that they are indeed the same: the mouse and the elephant are the same animal, and that anyone who contests this is clearly deranged, lacks Being, has never really studied himself in an Authorised Gurdjieff Group, Society, or Foundation, has never danced Sacred Dances, and has only Formatory Thinking, in his vanity, to offer to the World.
There are two completely different teachings associated with the name of G.I.Gurdjieff.
The first of these teachings I call the Gurdjieff Tradition and define as everything written and produced about Gurdjieff – by other people – and I stress this: by other people.
Gurdjieff, in the course of his life, never said anything about what he was teaching. How could he ? When forced, in the mid-nineteen twenties, by an accident, which hampered his physical ability to teach, and by becoming at the same time, a grandfather, which hampered his psychological certainty, as it does to us all, he wrote his book ” Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” and it took him over twelve hundred pages of densly packed text, to explain what he wanted to say. How is he going to explain that, in a few minutes, to any idle questioner who happens to turn up at his meetings ? He did not.
Answer the fool according to his folly. If asked a question, Gurdjieff answered that question in such a way as to indicate to the questioner, in the context of the question, what that person had to do next in order to
develop, and that questioner alone: not his wife, neighbour, nor his girlfriend. Gurdjieff would repeatedly say: this is for you only, or, he would speak in private later on. I have tried to capture this in a little story, called “The Tortoise and the Hare” which I append to this letter. Questions and answers to and from Gurdjieff are interesting to read and to ponder, but this does not mean that we can take the sum total of this tittle tattle as his teaching, or even as necessarily in any way related to his teaching.
The Gurdjieff Tradition – the first of the two completely different teachings associated with Gurdjieff – consists of everything written and produced about Gurdjieff by other people. This is completely different from Gurdjeff’s own writings.
In practical terms, the Gurdjieff Tradition has its origins in Ouspensky. I do not say this to disparage Ouspensky in any way; quite the contrary. I have a very great respect and gratitude to him for what he did, in making this teaching possible, and bringing it to a considerable number of people. His book “In Search of the Miraculous” is an outstanding work which should be read and studied by everyone. But, Ouspensky misunderstood Gurdjieff, and so, created a different teaching, and, also, everyone who came to Gurdjieff came to him, in some way, via Ouspensky, and so approached Gurdjieff with preconceived ideas, given them by Ouspensky, about what it was that Gurdjieff was teaching. Gurdjieff encouraged this.
An example of this is Thomas de Hartmann, who met Gurdjieff in February 1917, in Moscow, just before Gurdjieff abandoned his groups and went home to the Caucasus. After some conversation, Gurdjieff is reported to have said to the others, more experienced, who were present, “Let Ouspensky tell him what we have already learned.” And so, as one example out of many, if not all, Thomas de Hartmann’s ideas about what it was that constituted Gurdjieff’s overall teaching came from Ouspensky.
Even apparent exceptions prove this rule. I had thought that Alexander Salzman, the artist, and his wife, Jeanne, who met Gurdjieff, during the Russian Revolution, in Tiflis, in the Caucasus, might be exceptions to this rule, because Ouspensky never went to Tiflis. But, in fact, when I examine the matter, the Salzmanns met Gurdjieff throught Thomas de Hartmann, who, in turn, as we have just seen, was previously instructed by Ouspensky.
Even Orage met Gurdjieff and, as I have said here, his ideas, through Ouspensky, with whom he corresponded long before Ouspensky had even met Gurdjieff.
Everyone who came to Gurdjieff, came with preconceived ideas about what it was that Gurdjieff was teaching, given to them, directly or indirectly, by Ouspensky. The same still happens today. There must be very few who encounter the Gurdjieff teaching and Tradition, who do not first encounter the writings of Ouspensky, and hence, come to that teaching with preconceived ideas.
Ouspensky misunderstood Gurdjieff. This can easily be established by a careful study of his book “In Search of the Miraculous” and a comparison with Gurdjieff’s own book “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.” Indeed Cecil Nott records the deeply comic situation, in the nineteen thirties, where Ouspensky was teaching his “System,” based upon “Gurdjieff’s” teaching, but refused to read Gurdjieff’s own book, and even, it is rumoured, had it burned, declaring at times that Gurdjieff had gone mad, and that this book “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” he said, “stuck in his – Ouspensky’s – throat!”
Even Ouspensky knew that there were two teachings, completely different, one to the other, at that time. And like virtually everyone since, his teaching, that is, Ouspensky’s, was prefered, and became, in time, the Gurdjieff Tradition, referred to here by me.
The other teaching, almost completely unknown, because of a reluctance to read Gurdjieff’s own book ” Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson,” is completely different, both in overall theory, and in terms of actual practice. It is my personal opinion, after over forty years of study, that the Gurdjieff Tradition, coming from the System of Ouspensky, and based largely upon his book “In Search of the Miraculous” does not work. Gurdjieff’s own writing, over a long period of time, does.
It is possible to summarise both of these teachings, to bring out their differences, without diminishing either teaching by denying its complexity. If we summarise the Gurdjieff Tradition, coming from Ouspensky, as I have said, then it stresses that we are mechanical, living here on Earth subject to a large number of laws, which constrain us, and that we can gradually free ourselves from these laws and this mechanicalness, by becoming increasingly conscious. A machine that is conscious of itself is no longer a machine, at least, not a machine such as it was before. We have a duality, opposing our mechanicalness with consciousness, and even a series of four states of consciousness, which purport to exhibit this development. I would further add, to plane away even more wood, almost to the point of non-existence, that the overall theme of the Gurdjieff Tradition is that Gurdjieff was teaching about consciousness. The Gurdjieff Tradition is a study of consciousness. Is there anyone in that Tradition who would deny this? When we look, even with superficial eyes, at Gurdjieff’s own writings, we immediately realise that there is a problem.
Almost immediately, and as soon as he can, in Beelzebub’s Tales, Gurdjieff writes that he is writing his book in order to transform us. He is going to place into our subconscious – not into our consciousness, I note – what he describes as the “essence of certain real notions.” He is not teaching ideas, that is, notions. He is not teaching real notions, that is, shall we say, true ideas. He is placing the “essence” of certain real notions into our subconscious. He is placing them such that they will pass into the subconscious “automatically.” This word rings alarm bells immediately, for those in the Gurdjieff Tradition, for whom everything “automatic” is seen as anathema. There, he writes, in the subconscious, once they have automatically passed there, they – these or this “essence of certain real notions” – will of themselves, he writes, “mechanically” transform us, to give us the results we ought to have, and which are proper to man.
He is transforming us from “ordinary” man, the man in the street, who is not as he should be and is not as he imagines he is, into the “normal” man, the man, in fact, he ought to be.
The significant fact is that Gurdjieff writes that he is going to transform us, through our reading of his book, “automatically,” “mechanically,” and that it will happen of itself and by itself.
The Gurdjieff Tradition is often referred to as the “Work,” because it is a core element of this tradition that no mechanical “evolution” is possible: everything depends upon effort. Only through work can a man develop. Gurdjieff writes here the complete opposite.
Further, and in the same section, that is, as early as he can in this book, Gurdjieff writes that man has two consciousnesses having nothing in common. He goes on to make clear, in innumerable references, throughout the book, that what we call consciousness is a false and fictitious consciousness, and that the consciousness which should have been our true consciousness, and which remains in us, and remains in us in an undeveloped state, is that consciousness that we call the subconscious. In his writings, therefore, not only does Gurdjieff claim, repeatedly, throughout the book, that man has two consciousnesses having nothing in common, but also, that what he is developing in man, that consciousness which should have been our real consciousness, is not our consciousness, but the subconscious.
And, to make matters worse – speaking from the point of view of the notions of the Gurdjieff Tradition coming from Ouspensky – is that Gurdjieff also repeatedly makes clear, throughout the book, that he is not writing about “consciousness,” in the sense that it is used by the Gurdjieff Tradition, but that the central core of his teaching is about, not consciousness, but about perception. On the very first page of his book, he places the following paragraph. I write it here from memory:
In my opinion, the trouble with you, in the present instance, is perhaps chiefly due to the fact that, while still in childhood, there was implanted in you an excellently working automatism for perceiving all kinds of new impressions, thanks to which “blessing,” you have now, during your responsible age, no need of making any individual effort whatsoever.
Gurdjieff never writes about consciousness, in the sense that this word is used by the Gurdjieff Tradition, as some sort of rather abstract quality, almost philosophical, descending from heaven to imbue man with awareness. For Gurdjieff, consciousness is “the” consciousness of man – something – or “the” subconscious. He never uses consciousness in any abstract sense. Always, it refers to something: the conscious mind, or, the subconscious mind. Gurdjieff’s book “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” is not about consciousness. This is not the core of his teaching, as the Gurdjieff Tradition suggests. Gurdjieff is writing about perception!
If we take therefore the central core issue of the Gurdjieff Tradition as a study of consciousness, then it differs completely from the central theme of Gurdjieff’s own writings, which is the study, in theory and in practice, of perception. This is something completely different.
We can, quite easily, describe what it is that Gurdjieff says in his own writings, and in particular in his major book “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson.” This book is often seen as a very difficult book both to read and to understand, whereas this is only true if the book is approached from the viewpoint of the Gurdjieff Tradition, as it always is. It is a book about perception, and, therefore, if approached with the preconceived idea that it is about the development in man of his consciousness, it is obviously then going to be a bit of a puzzle. However, if taken on its own merits, it becomes a clear and consistent study of man describing exactly what is wrong with him.
As the passage above, taken from the first page or so of the book, says, we learn in childhood to perceive the world automatically. As a result of this, those energies and the data necessary to us for the development of our own individuality, which should come from new perceptions and genuine experiences of our own, are not present nor produced in us. We therefore, as Gurdjieff continually told his pupils, have nothing inside. Our inner life has no nourishment. We live in the ” abnormal external conditions of ordinary being-existence established by us ourselves.” As, in the book, the great Mullah Nasr Eddin says: There is everything in us except the core, or even the kernel. We live only and abnormally only in the external part of the psche, and our inner psyche, the source of our own individuality and Being, remains empty and undeveloped, lacking either data or energy. Gurdjieff seeks to remedy this so that we can cease to live externally only, and the true inner life of man can develop, being nourished by our own genuine perceptions and experiences, and in its turn, itself nourishing these things in a process of reciprocal maintainance.
It is as if we are in a vicious downward and isolating spiral, of which we are unaware, never having known anything else, which we maintain by our automatic perception of the world, in terms of endlessly repeating series of former impressions, so that internally we receive nothing new, either energetically, or, in terms of experience, leading to data and understanding for the development of our own individuality and Being. Internally therefore we remain undeveloped, and do not know why. Gurdjieff tells and demonstrates, in his book, that this is due to this automatic perception, which, if dealt with, changes the direction of this cycle, into a developing process. We start to become normal, which is the purpose, Gurdjieff indicates, of the transformation that he wishes for us.
The crucial factor is to develop some degree of understanding and control over the process of perception, that genuine perceptions, and hence, new experiences, can begin to take place in our inner life, and lead to its development. It is a precise and practical task. There is no mystery here, nor anything abstract or philosophic. We perceive the world automatically and so we have nothing inside. If we change this and acquire new perceptions which reach our inner psyche, then our inner life can begin to develop in us, in a quite normal and natural way. That is what Gurdjieff’s book is about, and that is what it aims to achieve.
To confuse this with talk of consciousness and of inner states, dubiously and rather murkily defined, is to greatly confuse the issue, and to miss the point of this book, and of this teaching. That is what the Gurdjieff Tradition does, as a result of Ouspensky’s misinterpretation of what it was that Gurdjieff told him. And that is why there are two completely different teachings associated with Gurdjieff, as I mentioned at the start of this little letter.
And so, we start to see that there are these two teachings associated with Gurdjieff. The Gurdjieff Tradition dabbling in a study of our consciousness, whereas Gurdjieff, in his own writings, never writes about consciousness. He writes about the consciousness of man, and the subconsciousness of man, as things, as minds, but never the abstract “consciousness” of this Tradition. He may write of “conscious perception,” to distinguish perception that we are aware of consciously from perception which is automatic and unconscious, but this is about perception, not consciousness, in the same way, as when we speak of “red brick,” we are talking about a brick and its quality of being red. We are not talking, in any abstract way, about the qualities of the colour red. The subject matter is the brick.
In addition, the Gurdjieff Tradition speaks about consciousness, in opposition to our mechanialness, but Gurdjieff, in his writings, immediately establishes the major theme that man has two consciousnesses having nothing in common. This is totally unmentioned by this Tradition and presents a completely different scenario for man. It is of immense importance. We are asleep, says Gurdjieff to Ouspensky. But which consciousness is asleep ? And which is going to wake up ? My own statement made elsewhere is that the mind that wakes up is not the mind that is asleep, but this involves a question that has never occurred to the Gurdjieff Tradition – which consciousness can and does wake up ? – and cannot even be broached by that Tradition as long as there is not a single statement in that Tradition to say, as Gurdjieff himself writes, that man has two consciousnesses.
And even further, the Gurdjieff Tradition is about the development, the evolution, the self-perfecting of man, seen as a sort of ladder of levels of Being reaching up to heaven. It is theoretically, an infinite process. And yet, Gurdjieff writes that he is going to transform us, from ordinary man, as we are, into normal men and women, as we should be. In such a state of normalness, he claims, our true consciousness, which we call the subconscious, will predominate in us, and we will have the results we ought to have, proper to man. It is a change-over of minds in us, the true for the false, or, a change-over of consciousnesses in us. It presents as a cycle, or circle, which, once complete – and being a circle or cycle, it does come to an end – allows us then to possibly begin again on an entirely new road. In short,
Gurdjieff, in “Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson” is describing a definite and limited event, a transformation with a definite beginning and a definite end. This presents a completely different picture of the “Work” than the Gurdjieff Tradition, with its open ended picture of human development.
There are two teachings which are completely different.
And so, in those five years spent, in my idle moments of spare time, comparing the Gurdjieff Tradition with Gurdjieff’s own writings, I have reached these two quite definite conclusions, which I regard now as laws. They are:
The First Law: There are two completely different teachings associated with the name of G.I.Gurdjieff.
The Second Law: Absolutely no one at all bases their “Work upon oneself” upon Gurdjieff’s writings. Everyone bases their supposed “Work on Oneself” upon the Gurdjieff Tradition instead, which is based and centred upon the writings and teachings of P.D. Ouspensky.