The arc and the secret of Gurdjieff’s teaching
Gurdjieff appeared in Moscow in late 1911 to begin the work of establishing his teaching in the world. Now, we are invited to look back over the whole arc of his work, after just over a century of rotations of the planetary system that he drew into orbit around him, and ask ourselves: what is the essential core of his legacy? Though we may have been “in Gurdjieff’s Work” for years or decades, we see that to face this question is a challenge. It demands a state of attention far above our usual one.
Perhaps it could help us to understand that the question seems impossible to answer because what is at the core of The Work is a secret. According to the principle of esotericism there must always be a secret at the core, something unknown, something that we cannot know, that we are not meant to know. We try to approach the core through a variety of means and ways—ideas, movements, sittings, exercises, readings, work with others, music— but in the peculiar non-Euclidean geometry (to borrow a word from René Daumal) that obtains around the deepest truth of things, the more one approaches it, the greater the distance becomes. In recognizing this, we begin to appreciate that something truly extraordinary is at stake. This opens us to new, finer, feelings, and to real ideas, far higher than those accessible to the ordinary mind. An energy enters that is, at last, capable of transforming us, into a new kind of being, one that has a relationship with this core.
All real traditions have an esoteric secret at their core. Because ordinary language cannot define the secret, it is often expressed in the language of symbol, for example the unpronounceable name of God. We take “symbol” in the sense that was explained by Henri Corbin who said that a symbol is not a representation of some other thing, it is the thing itself, and is hence an inexhaustible source of meaning. What is the uniquely Gurdjieffian form of the secret, the symbol that for us represents both the core and its hiddenness? Lord Pentland told us that we must make the body our symbol. Can we perhaps glimpse, as a harmonic overtone of repeated efforts to sense the physical body and its currents of fine energy, that a second body is already appearing, a secret body, unknown to our ordinary mind, with which we are gradually establishing a relationship? Is this body our symbol, and what mysteries does it reveal to us in its becoming?
How are we to allow this new relationship to develop according to its own laws, without degrading it through formalistic thoughts and efforts that do not rise to the necessary fineness of intent? When we observe what kind of thoughts and efforts usually occupy us, we come face to face with this question, and according to accounts of earlier followers of Gurdjieff, they also have always had to face it. Perhaps here then is another aspect of the secret: that, as we are, we are not capable of really thinking or of really working. To deeply accept this uncomfortable fact is to pass a certain threshold that is a necessary step on the way. It is not just a question of humbling oneself, but of becoming able to abandon, at moments, our vain, self-interested, greedy, willfulness toward inner work. Only then can the efforts that take place in us be directed not by our meaningless personal will, but by a higher will that we do not know, and must not seek to know about with our mind.
We are trying to speak about what cannot be spoken about. We are trying to do what cannot be “done”. We are living under an influence which we cannot see but can only allow to act on us. To the extent that we accept this situation, it makes us companions, members of a secret brotherhood of The Work.