Who was Gurdjieff?

Dr. Charles T. Tart, Mindfulness, Institute of Transpersonal Psychology,

Lecture 3, Part 5 of 13 parts. To start class from beginning, click here.

CTT: Here’s what I want to introduce you to tonight. This is the technique for practicing mindfulness as part of everyday life. This is a technique based on the teachings of George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. So who was George Gurdjieff besides the mysterious G. character in Ouspensky’s In Search of the Miraculous book, one of our texts?

Somebody asked me in their paper, “Why does Ouspensky call him G.?” I don’t know. To save space I guess instead of writing out Gurdjieff or something like that. (Laughter) A literary convention.

Gurdjieff was a person who grew up in an area of the Middle East which was extremely “multicultural,” because every 50 or 75 years somebody else conquered the place and imposed their values and beliefs, while the old ones still stayed around. So he kind of had a sample of every religion under the sun within a couple of hundred feet of his house. On the one hand, it made him very skeptical about most religions because he saw an awful lot of hypocrisy; and on the other hand, it gave him the feeling that all of these folks had been on to something once, but they seemed to have lost it now and retained only rituals and habits and social stuff, and so forth. What did they know once upon a time? He wanted to find out what was the real knowledge that was behind the manifest religions that he saw in his time, and that led him on a life long quest. His story can get very romantic.

There is a book about it called Meetings with Remarkable Men that Gurdjieff wrote. There is a movie based on it that’s a really neat movie, but probably simply a colorful travelogue if you haven’t actually read the book first. The bottom line of it was that in his travels through India, Tibet, Egypt, all over the Middle East, he studied with Sufis, Yogis, exotic kinds of Christians, and Buddhists. You name it, he probably studied with them.

Gurdjieff finally claimed that he had been taken under the wing of a secret school that had preserved the ancient knowledge, and this school put it back into the world every once in awhile. Now this is the romantic part, because you can’t really verify any of this, right? It’s called the Sarmoung Brotherhood, and I don’t know where to write a letter to the registrar of the Sarmoung Brotherhood University and say “Did this fellow, Gurdjieff ever get a master’s degree from you or is he just making it all up?”

But whether he made it all up or not, he came back from the East and began teaching in Moscow and Leningrad around the time of the First World War. That’s when Ouspensky’s book picks up. Gurdjieff had a lot of different ideas about spiritual development than you would come across in most conventional systems, and he was a very influential person behind the scenes of modern spirituality. At least, everybody says that. They say many people in positions of power today have been influenced by Gurdjieff but they never say who. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve found G’s system very worthwhile.

I think I told you that many years ago I tried all sorts of various meditation systems, taught by good teachers, and decided that whatever it took to learn to be a meditator, I didn’t have that talent. When I discovered the Gurdjieff stuff, I found I could do something right away. There was a very practical side to it because it was about developing awareness in the middle of everyday life.

There are two principles for developing. On the one hand, remaining open and curious like you do in Vipassana, an attitude of “what’s actually happening at this moment,” while at the same time, keeping yourself grounded in the here and now. We can be grounded in the here and now. Something happens (CTT smacks desk/table)! and it grabs your attention, pulls you into the here and now. And then what usually happens is we start associating to it, which reminds us of something else, which starts our story of our life going, which reminds us of something else; and we’re back off into fantasy land, into those constantly repeating internal processes, our story, with very little attention to the actual here and now world anymore. But if you keep yourself anchored in your physical body, which is here, which is now, and keep up an attitude of curiosity toward what’s actually going on, you can shift the quality of your consciousness.

I was hesitant back when I first started this kind of Gurdjieffian mindfulness work about calling the result an “altered state of consciousness,” but I should call it an altered state of consciousness. I’m not going to say too much about it yet because I prefer for people to taste some of the qualities of it themselves. But, you know, G talked about it as moments of waking up. That you can begin waking up for longer and longer periods of time, and that will make a big difference in your life. You’ll stop sleepwalking.


  1. Dr. Tart, I’ve been researching the areas of altered consciousness and would like to know if you are still teaching classes on subjects related to this. I would like to attend several of your classes to obtain your perspective of the altered consciousness state.

    1. I would like to attend several of your classes…
      Thank you. The only regular classes I teach are in the graduate program at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology, which are limited to enrolled students. I occasionally teach workshops or give single lectures at various conferences. I try to remember to announce these on my studentnotices list, which can be signed up for on the first page of http://www.paradigm-sys.com/cttart. I should also keep up the calendar there, but am too often too busy….

  2. It is nice that you are providing the instructions for waking up, but I don’t suppose you could tell us how to get back to sleep, could you?

  3. @Sandy:
    It is nice that you are providing the instructions for waking up, but I don’t suppose you could tell us how to get back to sleep, could you?
    These instructions can be all too readily found in your daily paper, on TV and radio, and in your own mind and those of others.
    After all, when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping…..

  4. “It is nice that you are providing the instructions for waking up, but I don’t suppose you could tell us how to get back to sleep, could you?”

    Hi Sandy,

    I think it might help if you tried meditating while lying in bed. Many people have difficulty meditating while lying down because they tend to fall asleep. But, for you this would be just what you want – a practice that will not wake you up but put you to sleep.

  5. @ Dr Tart,
    Maybe that’s my problem. I hate shopping. I rarely turn on the TV when I’m home alone because I enjoy the quiet too much. I probably read way too many books. I guess I’m screwed.

    @ Anonymous,
    Very funny. And it doesn’t work either. If do fall asleep that way, the colors tend to be very bright and noisy and they wake me up. That’s why I don’t meditate too late at night because I would stay up to watch the colors. It reminds me of waking up in the middle of the night to watch the Northern Lights as a kid.

    I know people are supposed to want to wake up, but I don’t want to. Grandma says that sometimes what we want isn’t as important as what we need. I spent an hour today walking in the rain trying to figure out why anyone needs to wake up. Grandma says everyone needs to wake up.

  6. Hi Sandy,

    I’m not sure what you consider waking up is what most people think of as waking up.

    In the Buddhist sense, (and they own the term since Buddha means “the awakened one”), waking up is not being psychic, but understanding reality in a way that ends suffering.

    Wouldn’t you like to stop suffering?

    Vipassana isn’t the only Buddhist practice. Some of the other practices are very good are relieving stress.

  7. Anonymous,

    I know being psychic is not waking up. I think that maybe it could be a side effect of the process. I’m just not so sure how understanding the bigger picture is going to end suffering. It won’t end my suffering in this lifetime. I can see how if everyone woke up, then everyone would be better off. But being aware and watching the people I love living like zombies is hard. So I fight it. But I get really tired sometimes and just give in every so often. It seems funny that I wake up when I’m too exhausted to stay asleep. That seems to be when I touch that bigger reality.

    When I was in the NDE place, and even when I come close to it sometimes, it feels like waking up would be OK. But everything in the NDE place feels OK. Way better than OK, in fact. I just worry that the NDE place won’t work here. Just because everything is OK in that light, doesn’t mean everything is OK here. Maybe if more of that light were here. People do make their own light sometimes, and it can be really awesome. But there isn’t anywhere near enough of that light here. And I can only make so much light by myself.

  8. Grandma just pointed out that I need to have faith. The thing is, I don’t have faith. I’ve never needed it. I don’t have to have faith that I’ll survive death, because I’ve done it already so I know I’ll survive. It doesn’t seem like such a big deal. I have every confidence that in the end I’ll be OK. I’m just not so sure about how well things are going in this place.

    I know this lifetime is important. I remember that from the NDE place, but I have trouble understanding why and what I’m supposed to do about it.

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