G.I. Gurdjieff—Biographical Notes
Even today, after almost a century of intense study and practice by students of his teaching, Gurdjieff himself remains an enigma. On first meeting him in Moscow in 1915, eminent writer and mathematician, P.D. Ouspensky, noted, “I saw a man of an oriental type, no longer young, with a black mustache and piercing eyes…who produced the strange, unexpected and almost alarming impression of a man poorly disguised, the sight of whom embarrasses you because you see that he is not what he pretends to be and yet you have to speak and behave as though you did not see it.”
Gurdjieff taught that one should learn to play a role in life—willingly fulfilling all its changing demands while remaining inwardly free—and he demonstrated this so effectively in his own life that he confounded both his admirers and detractors. Nevertheless, his influence as a spiritual force attracted seekers from all walks of life who, like the heroes in his uncompromising book, <i>Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson</i>, recognized a deep lack in themselves and sought a method of completion.
Gurdjieff was born into a deeply spiritual family. His grandmother was a midwife and healer, revered throughout the Alexandropol region of Armenia; his father was a Greek “ashokh” who committed to memory the great works of antiquity calling man to a spiritual awakening; his mother was a devote Christian who undertook a life of self-denial in gratitude for the birth of her first son, George Ivanovitch, on January 13, 1866.
He was a gifted child who followed his grandmother’s advice, “not to do anything as others do.” Schooled for both the priesthood and medicine, Gurdjieff had one unconquerable desire: to investigate from all sides, and to understand the exact significance and purpose of the life of man. He was convinced that the knowledge he sought had once existed in the great spiritual traditions and could be rediscovered.
From the age of twenty-one until he appeared in Moscow in 1912 with a complete system of psychological and metaphysical ideas and a method for the development of the inner life of man, Gurdjieff traveled to centers of knowledge in The Middle East and Central Asia, gathering the strands of ancient wisdom and fashioning them into one coherent whole, now called The Gurdjieff Work.
After several failed attempts, due to war and revolution, to found a center of teaching in Russia and Germany, Gurdjieff, with an entourage of pupils, family and refugees founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau, in France in 1922. Around him gathered an impressive group of pupils that included P.D. Ouspensky who had followed him from Russia and later published a succinct account of Gurdjieff’s teaching, A.R. Orage, prominent editor of the London New Age Review, who initially founded groups in New York, and Jean de Salzmann who after his death assumed responsibility for the transmission of Gurdjieff’s teaching.
When Gurdjieff died in Paris in 1949 where he had lived and taught in a crowded apartment during and after the difficult years of the war, he left behind the foundation of a worldwide movement of spiritual renewal for the welfare of “all creatures of our Common Father similar to myself.” This consisted of a collective of dedicated and capable senior pupils, four distinctive books containing his ideas, a body of sacred dances, called the Movements, and several hundred pieces of sacred music. As Madame de Salzmann noted, “He had prepared everything; nothing had been overlooked.”
Gurdjieff’s tells us that, “The highest aim and sense of human life is the striving to attain the welfare of one’s neighbour… and that this is possible only exclusively by the conscious renunciation of one’s own.”
Gurdjieff, like all great spiritual masters, embodied his teaching.