February 27, 2015

“For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?


In David Robertson’s interview with Professor Carole Cusack of the University of Sydney and Steven Sutcliffe, Senior Lecturer in the Study of Religion at the University of Edinburgh, the Religious Studies Project has curated a rich and wide-ranging discussion introducing – if David and Chris’ evident excitement during the podcast is any indication – an increasingly receptive audience of the next generation of scholars to critical approaches to Gurdjieff and the study of religions, an embarrassment of riches against which I now have the great but difficult fortune of contributing some of my own observations from the field. The interview is based on their February 2015 special issue of the Journal for the Academic Study of Religion on Gurdjieff and his followers and the book they are now writing on the subject.

As it’s not every day an ‘independent scholar’ who is invited to write about their narrow area of expertise is gifted with such an obvious self-reflexive starting point in order to begin with both disclosure and gratitude, I hope I can be forgiven quoting myself being quoted by one of the great contributors to religious studies, Carole Cusack:

“My former Ph.D. student David Pecotic who did a Ph.D. on Gurdjieff’s cosmology … used to say, the article he was living to write was ‘If Gurdjieffians are supposed to be so secretive, why the hell do they write so much?’ – and it really is true …”

This is not that article, but it is a question I hope they will address in their book. What I want to do here is to focus on the three themes raised in the interview that I think are the most bound up in whatever the answer to this question may look like – category formation/disciplinary boundaries of ‘Gurdjieff studies’; the epistemological problems/solutions of archival study of esotericism in the digital age; and the way academia is inescapably enmeshed in the ‘Gurdjieff industry’, i.e., revelations of primary sources that occur in the inevitable sectarian conflicts that arise in heterodox ‘invented traditions.’

Category formation/disciplinary boundaries – will the ‘real’ Gurdjieff please stand up?


While there is little disagreement as to the basic content of Gurdjieff’s spiritual teaching, there is currently no concrete proposal about the place of Gurdjieff within the broadly scientific study of religions. Various categories have been or are currently on offer; leaving aside the old saw of Sufism for the moment, the most dominant, as Sutcliffe points out, is still Paul Heelas’ (1996) ancestral association of Gurdjieff with New Age religions. Both Sutcliffe and Cusack make a strong case that beyond some broad strokes the two are not a good fit sociologically. Gurdjieff is also missing from the best analyses of ‘New Age religions’ as a category of the secularisation of western esotericism within the discipline of the history of religions (Hanegraaff 1996). Nor does Gurdjieff fit the classic characteristics of Western esotericism made famous by Antoine Faivre (Pecotic 2004). Gurdjieff is present in The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (Hanegraff 2006) but missing in Christopher Partridge’s The Occult World (2014). Andrew Rawlinson’s now largely forgotten sociological theory of Gurdjieff as one of the first ‘experiential comparative religionist’ types is now critically problematic (1998). However, Sutcliffe’s and Cusack’s characterisations of Gurdjieff as bricoleur and ‘in-betweener’ respectively suggest an insistence on a single solution to the place of Gurdjieff within the field. This may itself be the primary problem, especially as it was part of page102_1his soteriological mission to be able to consciously act as a different person to better ‘match’ different people. To approach in an integrated way a man that was, among other things, a composer, choreographer, author, hypnotist and healer with paranormal powers, just to name a few, would require a more sustained inter-disciplinary and collaborative approach in the future, and Sutcliffe and Cusack’s current collaboration are steps in the right direction.

The epistemology of esoteric archives – the source(code) of and solution to the category problem

3As definitions and theories rely on availability of evidence, archival access and what counts as a primary source (and who gets to decide) is a consequential problem. I agree with their observations regarding basic chronology and the epistemological problems implicit in relying on practitioners for publication of and access to esoteric archives. Yet it was their brief point about the effect of the internet that resonated more for me as a researcher. An esoteric field is no longer about scarcity but abundance. Researchers increasingly have the opposite problem of managing an accelerating quantity of primary source materials. Indeed, there is a need for critical editions if only to better deal with the proliferation of online document access to which both scholars and practitioners alike find increasingly difficult to quality control I would argue that digital technologies began to turn the tide of access in 2004 when the Gurdjieff bibliographer J. Walter Driscoll moved from the print version of his standard reference to the online publication ‘Gurdjieff – A Reading Guide’. Even the more ‘orthodox’, hierarchical groups that teach Gurdjieffian principles and exercises in a formalised manner have taken to the Internet via the Gurdjieff International Review. But there are also crowdsourced domains like The Gurdjieff Internet Guide which despite being officially ‘retired’ in 2012, has 10, 000 visits a month and continues to be an online archive for even the wilder engagement.

Cusack was right to highlight the recent publication flurry of new source material on Gurdjieffian practices, something that has been a special focus of my research (akin to Jay Johnston’s interview on the ‘The Subtle Body’ and David Gordon White’s response) such as The Force Of Gurdjieff series recounting A. R. Orage’s group talks as recollected by B. B. Grant and L. S. Morris. But as one Amazon reviewer put it, anyone could get this material online for free and it should have at least been presented in a more critical fashion for the price. For every important academic publication of practices, like Joseph Azize’s ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ in Aries 2013, there is an unmediated description such as can be found in Eight Meetings in Paris 1943, 1944, 1946. It is no wonder that Gurdjieffian publishing houses like Eureka Editions have formwhat_would_george_gurdjieff_do_swivel_usb_flash_drive_-r5321371fdba3422385fc1c395cf0e0ae_zkhjh_324ed what amounts to a ‘Gurdjieff industry.’ While it is important that institutions like Yale University Library have archived the Thomas de Hartmann Papers, Maurice Nicoll Papers, P. D. Ouspensky Memorial Collection, it also represents a lost opportunity for the reconstitution of a more critical study of Gurdjieff in the context of the digital humanities which can enable more critical cross-fertilisation if not deeper ethnographic collaboration between scholars and practitioners.


The industrial struggle of the magicians and unweaving the wicked Webb

There are also demographic and generational reasons why previously secreted Gurdjieffian source materials are coming online apace. As Johanna Petsche, another former Ph.D. student of Cusack’s has pointed out, dramatic changes were made by Jeanne de Salzmann after Gurdjieff’s death, when hierarchical ‘Foundation’ groups emerged that subsequently formalised Gurdjieffian principles and exercises. As Cusack noted, de Salzmann was the first Gurdjieffian and not Gurdjieff. Not all of Gurdjieff’s followers amalgamated into this network; an assortment of Gurdjieff-based groups remained outside of it. It is these ‘independent’ and ‘fringe’ groups that are experiencing the most rapid growth and reform; the more orthodox groups are literally being ‘outbred.’

It is in this context that ‘insider’ scholars like Paul Beekman Taylor and Sophia Wellbeloved began to create a sui generis ‘Gurdjieff Studies’, one that championed alternative narratives and less orthodox sources and continues to do so, albeit more quietly in a slightly different online format. As Sutcliffe reminds us, with the example of the great occult historian James Webb’s Gurdjieffian history, scholarship that shifts a field like this is always – as Gurdjieff would have phrased it – up to its galoshes in disseminating by capturing ‘schisms and personal enmities’, and have no choice but to play an active – dare I say more ‘conscious’ role – in this insider/outsider process — “where one stands determines what one sees and what one can know” Capps (1995: 334-5). Similar explosions of understanding have occurred in analogous new fields: Wouter Hanegraff (in a previous RSP interview) has described Western esotericism as ‘one of the biggest last undiscovered niches in the academic study of religions.’ For all the above reasons, Gurdjieff may be the next in the field to be discovered. I look forward with keen interest to any critical reflections on my own observations, as well as to Sutcliffe and Cusack’s contributions in the light of themes I hope they will be able to investigate.


Azize, Joseph. 2013. ‘“The Four Ideals”: A Contemplative Exercise by Gurdjieff’ Aries 13(2) 173-203.

Capps, Walter H. 1995. Religious Studies: The Making of a Discipline. Fortress Press: Minneapolis.

Hanegraaff, Wouter. 1996. New Age Religions and Western Culture: Esotericism in the Mirror of Secular Thought. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

– 2006. The Brill Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism. E.J. Brill: Leiden.

Heelas, Paul. 1996. The New Age Movement: Celebrating the Self and the Sacralisation of Modernity. Blackwell: Oxford.

Pecotic, David. 2004. ‘Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way: Giving Voice to Further Alterity in the Study of Western Esotericism’ Sydney Studies in Religion, 86-120.

Partridge, Christopher (ed). 2014. The Occult World. Routledge.

Rawlinson, Andrew. 1998. Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions. Open Court.

Petsche, Johanna. 2013. ‘A Gurdjieff Genealogy: Tracing the Manifold Ways the Gurdjieff Teaching has Travelled’ International Journal for the Study of New Religions 4(1), 1-25.


4 replies to ““For a Secret Teaching, They Sure Do Write A Lot About It” – Is There a Gurdjieff Studies or only a Gurdjieff Industry?

  1. Richard Lloyd

    While it may be true that there are thousands of books about Mr. Gurdjieff’s teachings and ideas, it is an oral tradition and there are no notebooks revealing the exercises that are primary to his work.


  2. Richard Lloyd

    With perhaps a few clues, such as the 4 ideals, and certain statements regarding exercises in the notes of his personal meetings with students, there has been no escape into the world of the actual exercises which were given by Mr. Gurdjieff either to groups or to individuals. This is similar to the practice of original Christianity, in which a person was an acolyte for 3 to 7 years before being allowed into the full practice of the mysteries including the Eucharist. Christianity only broke through the surface of the world after 312 – 324 years CE, and perhaps due to Constantine’s misreading of his vision and auditory hallucinations stating “By This Sign, Conquer” he placed a sign on war shields and won a great battle.

    One of Mr. Gurdjieff’s oft stated comments was that every stick has 2 ends – why then did Constantine not see that “by this sign, conquer” might’ve suggested a mastery of himself? By his putting the symbol of the phi rios on war shields he turned Christianity inside out and upside down – leading to the devil’s 3rd temptation coming true, as one 3rd of the worlds population call themselves Christian and it is a political organization as much as a religious one.

    As for myself, I follow Mr. Gurdjieff and am authorized by permission to teach his work, but I vet carefully the students because one of my teachers once said the difference between Christianity and the Gurdjieff work is that in Christianity “many are called but few are chosen whereas in the Gurdjieff work no one is called, but anyone finding the living work is put to work immediately” and the word work has the same meaning as it does in physics – the amount of energy needed to increase a certain amount of water by 1°F or Celsius (or Kelvin) – in other words it requires effort, and studying from the intellectual and often superficial studies with respect to Mr. Gurdjieff in his life are very small part of the actual Work. Most of the real living Work is vertical in nature, and Gurdjieffians generally do not speak of their association with Mr. Gurdjieff’s teachings except in an extremely guarded manner.

    There are those like myself who are very open about my relationship with Mr. Gurdjieff and the teachings, but you could torture me to death without me revealing the inner exercises that are to us qualified as sacred.

    With respect, – Richard Lloyd New York City 2015


  3. Therion

    The Gurdjieff system as presented by P.D. Ouspensky is not easily understood and even less easily assimilated, let alone actuated. The sources of the system weren’t G himself, so much as the esoteric traditions he borrowed from. The ideas were a bit like the Persian carpets he hawked around with him, a bazaar of the mind with the goods mediated by G for a price, sometimes a very hefty one for anyone familiar with the lives ruined by Fourth Way practice. It is interesting that Ouspensky and others came to distance the system from G himself, who some came to regard quite rightly as highly suspect, in part for reasons related to personal conduct.

    The system is a trap for the unwary. It is a trap for two reasons. First of all it presents humanity as essentially “asleep”… people as mechanical, conditioned. While this is essentially true the trap relates to the direct engagement called for and the fundamental impracticality of the method of working.

    Just as G presented himself as a teacher who managed to free himself from the conditioned sleeping imprint, so much less credible Fourth Way teachers have come in his wake claiming similar credentials. Anyone familiar with the working of Fourth Way groups will understand that the power dynamic within these groups is loaded from the outset. Could there be a more disempowering and potentially exploitative scenario than students convinced of their inability “to do”… characterized as “machines” with only the slightest chance of creating a soul capable of surviving the death shock. They are essentially ‘food for the moon’… their insights, observations always open to question on the grounds that they are malfunctioning machines with no central “I”… passive and conditioned machines who can do nothing.

    The inner work involved is more likely to produce psychological problems than any type of “breakthrough” that can be integrated and sustained. I personally know of one too many students of G’s system who ended up psychologically isolated, weirdly self-obsessive, neurotic, fixated, entangled in inner complexities they not only failed to understand and liberate themselves from… but that became more rather than less pathological as a direct result of the unnatural conditions created in the course of Fourth Way “work.” Needless to say there are many instances of breakdowns, abuse – some of it involving teachers who exploit the vulnerability of attractive “machines” who become dependent in unhealthy ways.

    Western-style magick by contrast provides a working method that empowers the operator from the outset. The ritual method involved engages unresolved aspects of consciousness yes, but is carefully mediated with checks and balances. Importantly the practitioner is not characterized as ” a machine” but as “a star” and so-called “sleep” altered through ritual method. This can be characterized as active or conscious imagination working in accordance with will as expressed through the ritual workings. Importantly the operator isn’t reduced, made to feel mechanical, dysfunctional, food for the moon so to speak. Rather individuality and personality is defined and integrated, raised through an interface with energies that have already been formulated. The current we work with is an ancient one and is about raising the consciousness in conformity with will.

    93 93/93.


    1. Richard Lloyd

      As was said “no man is an island” everyone is in relationship and everything is in relationship to everything else. Although Ouspensky came to a break with Mr. Gurdjieff it was due to his own ability to cross certain barriers and his own ego which demanded that he become the teacher. Mr. Gurdjieff on the other hand treated people kindly and one only has to look at his funeral service the pictures there from to get an idea of the high regard in which he was held, not just by his students but by people he helped. In secret He went around doing good deeds, and his aim was to change mankind’s very view of God. It sounds as though you are speaking from the outside where is submitted to 15 years with the New York Gurdjieff Foundation before departing from them. Having received authority to teach the work must state that the work and the ideas are not the same thing. And anyone following Ouspensky can end up nowhere. A man once went to Gurdjieff asking him some technical question and he replied by asking him how he treated his mother. That was pure Mr. Gurdjieff – a man could cut to the quick through a man’s personality surface and touch him on the quick, effecting emotional changes that could be had in no other way.

      Magic on the other hand is done instantly alone and the gain is for oneself. The work on the other hand is for gain for the others – never for oneself. There are unscrupulous people who have taken Gurdjieff’s name For their own designs and shame upon them. As for myself I remain convinced that Mr. Gurdjieff was and is the teacher for the next Aion.


Join the discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *