Friday, May 13, 2022

The Stray Dog, Wandering with Gurdjieff

Real Wars kill people. Mythological Wars create cults

23rd April 2022, the Feast of Saint George

I write about George Ivanovich Gurdjieff against the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. There can be no hiding from real human suffering, but if I really acknowledge how little I can do to change the situation, I feel completely powerless. Nonetheless I find myself checking online for the latest updates. I count the number of children who have been evacuated from Mariupol, and wonder how many fighters remain in the labyrinth of bunkers and tunnels built to withstand a nuclear attack that have become the last holdout for a beleaguered regiment of the Ukrainian army.

I know which side I should root for, or more accurately, I know which side I want to win although I'm not entirely aware of all the factors that govern my impulses. From afar it seems clear that there are good guys and bad guys. I don’t know how many secret sins Volodymyr Zelenskyy is hiding, but I can see Valdimir Putin in what appear to be carefully edited Russian TV news clips keeping his distance from everyone at the end of a long white table with some arcane imperial symbols in gold holding the legs to the floor. Generals sit at the other end. According to reports, no one dares feed him accurate information about the progress of his narcissistic war. Looking at the picture, I find sympathy impossible. It seems like a world of lies and manipulation, and I have no reason to believe otherwise, although I know that if I were in Russia, I would hear an entirely different story presented over the airwaves, and I might feel differently. In fact I know I would feel differently. What is accurate information, what is propaganda, and how can I really tell the difference? Using information that comes through a filter is always tricky.

I am uneasy. My perceptions feel almost archetypal, like watching Arjuna and Lord Krishna surveying the battlefield and talking on and on about the “big picture” meaning of conflict. But I will direct my reflection back to the conversation of the Bhagavad Gita when things are less heated, the actual winners and losers have been sorted out, the bodies buried. This war will have consequences. All wars do, but right now I cannot feel in my body how or where we have been injured. I myself am not in the horrific underground labyrinth of Mariupol. It is a theoretical conversation except when I get personal about the cost.

I also know that it is from the perspective of myth and fable that I examine the story of Gurdjieff.

The Stray Dog*

More than 100 years ago during the Bolshevik Revolution, very close to this same battlefield, George Ivanovich Gurdjieff started the wandering that would eventually take him and his followers to France. Gurdjieff had tried, unsuccessfully, to establish his Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man first in Tbilisi then soon after in Essentuki. But by 1920 he and his followers left Georgia for Constantinople and he became a stray dog, forced into roaming by the historical progenitors of the army currently bombing, slaughtering and raping.

This small group of men and women were mostly members of the Russian elite. Eventually they found their way to Le Prieuré in Fontainebleau-Avon, an abandoned French convent which had been the chateau of Louis XIV's secret wife, Madame de Maintenon, until a previous revolution had impoverished its aristocratic owner. Then the first major global conflict created an opportunity for a homeless group of exiles to set up an esoteric school in what was, from all accounts, a mammoth fixer-upper.

Although some very prominent people came to study with Gurdjieff, they remained an elite group over the next 29 years that he taught. He authorized very few senior students and left us scant and, for the most part, very difficult written materials, but along with several people who worked with him, Gurdjieff had an outsized impact on the world of modern spirituality. Many proponents of the Western Enneagram cite Gurdjieff as the source of their psychological/spiritual tool though this is not at all certain.

Gurdjieff always seemed a bit vague about the sources of his teachings. In Meetings with Remarkable Men, and in several other places, he makes his teachers into the stuff of legend, idealized characters, almost characterizations in his story of discovery and intrigue. They imparted a special, hidden teaching which he then promised to pass onto select students. These teachers are never clearly identified, but this is the very nature of esotericism. It is obscure and only understood or intended to be understood by a small number of people with special (and perhaps secret) knowledge. Receiving and understanding the teachings requires initiation into the group.

I meet “The Work.”

I moved to Berkeley in 1973, and began work in Claudio Naranjo’s Seekers After Truth, a name he borrowed from Gurdjieff. Our group of 50 or 60 people came from all walks of life. There were psychologists and professors, a Jesuit priest and a Franciscan Friar, two seminarians, one former nun, a devotee of Swami Rudrananda, a rabbi’s wife, and one woman who’d been associated with the Gurdjieff Foundation; several Ph.D.’s, two medical doctors, school teachers, at least one lawyer, more than a handful of psychology graduate students, body workers, therapists, a film-maker, a martial artist, a C-level New York fashion executive, Ravi Shankar’s mother-in-law, one professional journalist and a film distributor; but there were also carpenters, house painters and a French hippie. We were mostly white, straight (only 4 or 5 gay people), a large proportion of Jews, one Muslim and a few Asians.

We were also serious about exploring the Enneagram of Fixations, and by extension, engaging in “The Work.” The figure of G.I. Gurdjieff, always referred to as “Mr. Gurdjieff,” his pronouncements, statements about the nature of the universe, humankind’s ultimate purpose and his methods to undertake spiritual work were treated as sacrosanct. His inscrutable Beelzebub's Tales was spoken of in hushed tones. If you read it but didn’t understand his made-up words or the insidious properties of the mysterious organ Kundabuffer, you were advised to re-board the spaceship Karnak and delve more deeply into the mysteries that eluded you. This language purported to have roots in several esoteric Eastern spiritual disciplines. Using it, wrestling with the complexity of the inner states it purported to describe, was part of the process of introspection, or, as Gurdjieff described it, “Self-Remembering.”

Gurdjieff’s teaching and his words that have been passed down to us fall into several distinct categories. He carefully wrote one book, Beelzebub’s Tales to His Grandson: An Objectively Impartial Criticism of the Life of Man; and two others, Meetings with Remarkable Men, which apparently combine his own autobiographical work with a draft by his student, A.R. Orage, and finally Life is Real Only Then, When “I Am,” fragments of talks edited by one of his principle students, Jeanne de Salzmann. Then there is writing of students that Gurdjieff’ authorized, most notably P.D. Ouspensky's In Search of the Miraculous which received his imprimatur.

There are also the anecdotal memoirs of students plus extensive transcripts of his talks. The writings of men and women (both genders are represented, but men far outnumber women) who stand in the lineage of Fourth Way teachers, purport to transmit Gurdjieff’s teaching as well as claiming authority to speak in their voice. And finally there are extensive writings of people who describe their own experiences and interpretations of his teachings. These vary widely from memoir, metaphysical speculation to hagiography. Each of these kinds of writing have to be treated differently.

I use the word “myth” to denote the stories told about Gurdjieff’s understanding of the complexity of our human nature, driven by some overriding knowledge of the ultimate purpose of our human predicament. It includes the repetition of phrases or instructions to people who sought his direction as they undertook their own inner search. Though Gurdjieff was a real person who had real contacts with humans that were, from their reports, immensely transformative, the myths that I am talking about are for the most part second generation, embellished stories that share more with Aeneas’s journey from Troy than, and (I chose my example carefully) Krishnamurti’s talks at Ojai. Though I love Virgil’s poetry, I prize Jiddu Krishnamurti’s analysis.

I was born five years before Gurdjieff died in Paris, 29 October 1949. I met and had several conversations with one person, Lord John Pentland, who knew Gurdjieff over a long period of time, and had been his student as well as a person he authorized to teach. I also knew several of Pentland’s students, most intimately a fellow Jesuit and gay man, Father Tom Charbeneau. I met the writer, Pamela Travers, who was Gurdjieff’s student, and I had a long association with Kathy Speeth who sat on Gurdjieff’s knee when she was a toddler. I worked intensively for several years with Henry Korman who claimed to be in the lineage of Fourth Way teachers, but later confessed to being a fraud. Others, most importantly Claudio Naranjo, used selected phrases and stories about Gurdjieff as instructions in their own teaching. Though I have combined this experience with my wide reading, I state at the outset that I am not a student of the Fourth Way, nor do I claim to have done a complete study of Gurdjieff’s Teaching.

Gurdjieff’s public portrait is complex and tightly edited by his followers. On top of that, each one of us does his or her own editing. I have tried to report as accurately as possible what I can surmise from my own reading and research as well as what I’ve been able to glean from second hand accounts. For the purposes of argument, I have placed my narrative against an idealized version of the man I’ve pieced together. Naranjo did not set himself up as an heir to Gurdjieff’s teaching, but he was certainly conversant with it, and frequently pointed to Gurdjieff as a prototypical teacher of the kind of inner work he favored. He labeled him a “trickster” in the venerable line of teachers who use unorthodox means to help a student examine something about him or herself that they can’t see for themselves. Naranjo also talked about “The School.” It referred to the interrelated teachings and teachers whose work could be traced, using some psychic map, to the same Source.

This unfettered style often veers outside normal ethical norms, and opens the possibility for abuse. The end justifies the means. Our new found sexual freedom encouraged an attitude of laissez-faire and there was inevitably some degree of exploitation; Naranjo was very interested in psychedelics--he encouraged experimentation with drugs, notably LSD and Ayahuasca; he and his leaders allowed interactions which were outside professional guidelines; teachers’ credentials went unchecked or were inflated. In post hippie, Beatnik California Naranjo was not alone, on the one hand encouraging some of these behaviors, engaging in some and turning a blind eye to others. From my observation, many New Age teachers shared this sin to some degree. It comes part and parcel with the way conversation has been framed as a top down authority structure.

In the interests of being as transparent as one can be in this conversation, I spent an inordinate amount of time in my adult life exploring what I can only describe as the world of the New Age esoteric and occult. I never admitted to myself that it was a highly suspect endeavor, populated with the likes of Mme Helena Petrovna Blavatsky, Edgar Cayce, Charles Webster Leadbeater, or Aleister Crowley who purported to be authentic or enlightened teachers with a clear channel to “All that Is.” This is rocky terrain, rife with snake oil salesmen and outright frauds. Some of these people were more convincing than others basically because they spun better yarns, but the frauds all seem to have this in common--their stock in trade was taking advantage of vulnerable people. In my case it was a severe personal crisis that I didn’t even recognize. I was looking for a way out. By directing my attention to my plight, seeming to dismantle it and returning life to some level of normalcy, acceptance and happiness, roped me into its intrigue.

Several friends have discouraged my investigation. One asserts that Naranjo is not at all as important as he was when we were part of SAT, that his influence is waning. Another warns that any negative comments will deter people from undertaking the difficult work of introspection. These cautions do not deter me. The influence of Gurdjieff in modern, non-religious practice is far wider than might appear at first glance, and warrants examination. It extends from the presentation of the Enneagram in a Catholic setting to several “Human Potential Trainings/Processes,” notably the processes directly connected to the Fischer-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy which Naranjo promoted and introduced to SAT. The influence extends even into the world of American Zen practice. One teacher whom I admired told me that when she didn’t know where to take a student in meditation instruction, she fell back on the Enneagram.

But most importantly, “The Work '' struck a chord with me, opening up a world that I knew I had to explore. When I found myself caught in the trap of not being able to see my own plight clearly and was forced to admit that I’d been the fool, it was not the most comfortable of personal predicaments. The amount of personal capital that I’d already invested into the enterprise obscured the situation. What makes this spell of gnostic enterprise more difficult to crack is that it did begin to encroach on the entrapment and unmask self-deception, the very thing that I’d sought to free myself from in the first place. Though it provided some sense of relief, a half-right answer is still wrong. Freeing one hand provided relief, but I was still a slave.

The logical fallacy of the Argument from Authority.

Let me now examine the logical fallacy used to support the “exit plan” that brings down the whole house of cards. Gurdjieff asserts that man does have the possibility of being awake, but in order to wake up, he has to set an alarm clock, and insert a conscious mechanism into his unconscious routine to remind him that he’s dreaming. But there’s a catch: once the alarm clock has been set, and has worked a few times, the mechanisms of our human mind grow numb to its sound, and it loses its effectiveness. We fall back asleep. The human perpetual sleeping machine needs a perpetual waking machine, one that stands outside his or her habitual way of being. Thus the set up--we have need of a guru, an awake man (sometimes a woman but rarely), or one who knows vs. ordinary asleep man just going through the rituals of survival and coping. To top off the esoteric mechanism, when you realize that you are asleep, you need to find, and pay, this person who is awake to wake you up.*

The argument from authority is “[a] formal fallacy in which it is argued that because a perceived authority figure (or figures) believes a proposition (relevant to their authority) to be true, that proposition must therefore be true. This is also known as an appeal to authority. This fallacy occurs when person Y claims that person X is experienced in the topic at hand. Therefore, whatever person X believes is the truth. Alternatively, this can also occur if person Y claims themselves to be the authority, therefore whatever person Y believes is true. This fallacy is a special case of the genetic fallacy as the source is being used to justify the acceptance of a conclusion.”

Who stands in the position of X at the top of the enterprise of the Western Enneagram as the person of authority? When describing the origins of this Enneagram, we only find oblique references to Gurdjieff. The main candidates for an authorized source swing between the truly secret teaching of Gurdjieff or his followers, to Arica founder Oscar Ichazo and his student Naranjo with some far more dubious stops in the Sarmoung or Naqshbandi brotherhood, or (this one is close to my heart) in the work of a 17th century Jesuit polymath, Athanasius Kircher. I argue that all these stories are fishy--to use a technical term.

This conversation about spiritual life is crippled by lame arguments. The impulse to expand the world beyond what we can perceive and verify is not the exclusive property of Gurdjieff's metaphysical construct. The awake person knows something that you do not know, something your present condition blinds you from seeing, but something that can alter your present condition by correct analysis. I argue that this argument from authority is consistent throughout all revealed religion: for example the dogmatic pronouncement that the Pope can, by virtue of his authority alone, utter statements that are “infallibly true” despite any factual evidence. I will also point to the passion for miracles, physical occurrences that stand outside the normal laws of cause and effect. I use the word “passion'' purposefully because even if we can’t personally witness these extraordinary events, we “believe” them, assuring ourselves in the benevolence of the unseen world, guiding us when we lack clarity, and for the purposes of this argument, providing authority as we grapple with the unknown.

The proponents of what I call the Western Enneagram Teaching as a tool for self-observation point to the appearance of the nine-pointed mandala in Gurdjieff’s teaching plus a few other references, found mostly in the works of Ouspensky and Bennett. But in Gurdjieff the Enneagram outlines the steps for the movements or sacred dancing combined with a rather complex set of laws of three and octaves--certainly nothing that points to 27 categories of personality fixations, virtues or holy work.

The first person that we know of in the Americas, and as far as we know, the first person to refer to an Enneagon, was the Bolivian Oscar Ichazo. In 1968 Ichazo presented lectures on his theories of Protoanalysis and the ego-fixations at the Institute of Applied Psychology in Santiago, Chile. It was here that Naranjo made contact with Ichazo, and later at Ichazo’s first training in Arica Chile, Naranjo began his own investigation of what he termed the Enneagram of Fixations.

Naranjo told a convoluted tale echoing Sufi masters disguising their teaching and tricking their disciples, and wove it into his story about receiving the Enneagram from Ichazo. My skeptic says that he was just trying to establish an authorized teaching lineage by characterizing his difficult relationship with Ichazo as a Sufi trick. To further break with difficult factual history, at some point Naranjo describes his understanding of the Enneagram as the result of automatic writing. Appealing to this otherworldly realm of evidence, one of Ichazo’s disciples says that an esoteric volume fell from a shelf in Ichazo’s study, opened up to the Enneagon diagram, and Ichazo divined its gnostic meaning.

I want to point out that these conversations themselves are privileged. They rely on the status of the speaker rather than hard evidence as to the root of the Enneagram/Enneagon to prove the validity of the system. Both the claims and statements fall entirely within the argument from authority. But they still continue to be used for confirmation of the system’s validity and ultimate use.

You don’t believe me? Then why are we still having this argument about the correct, or authorized source? Q.E.D.

Debunking some myths around “Mr. Gurdjieff” and “The Work.”

Before I begin to debunk any mythological constructs. I will note what first attracted me to ``The Work,” what I found useful, where I opened myself to abuse, and finally how I began to become disenchanted. Throughout I will be paying close attention to language. Zen posits that a lot of what is important to discuss is beyond words, but we have to use words; they may be an approximation, but they are only tool available to humans. Some of this esoteric language points to important issues in life while other language--I will use a less technological, but very precise word to describe this abuse--is gobbledegook.

When I was 29 years old after just a few months working with Naranjo, I had an experience that lifted a huge weight that I’d been carrying for many years. Sitting in that ramshackle fraternity house in Berkeley, it struck like lightning. Its debris would take years to sweep up. I uncovered the motivation for my life choice to train as a Jesuit, a dream that began when I was just an adolescent. Unpacking it, dealing with the consequences, including the abuse that played out, would be a long, slow and costly process, but it opened a new vista for my life that I could not have imagined. I remain grateful, but in retrospect, the experience was so overwhelming I was blinded to its limitations.

These were heady days, Naranjo told us that he was setting up a school that would be a smorgasbord of available spiritual disciplines, shorthand for “Esalen Style.” Experimentation was the norm and, given the circumstances, the path might prove rocky, even dangerous. I knew that I needed psychological help, but I also wanted to avoid professional treatment. As a Jesuit, therapy was not out of bounds but still carried enormous baggage if I wanted to advance in the Order. The prospect of blending spirituality with the insights of psychology provided cover. For any psychological process to work, however, it still required a level of vulnerability, but in the freewheeling world of SAT, time-tested ethical and professional principles had been suspended. There were casualties, and personally I ran up against very difficult obstacles. Being raped by a uneducated tailor who claimed to be the psychic channel for a dead psychiatrist certainly fits in that category.

Naranjo, much like Gurdjieff in Meetings with Remarkable Men, told tales of receiving information from other sources. Bob Hoffman told him things about his past that Hoffman could not have possibly known, or that was Naranjo’s claim,* and therefore the whole group would be subjected to the Fisher-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy, despite Hoffman’s obvious lack of professionalism. The discipline of Fritz Perls was far from unprofessional, and when Naranjo sat in that chair, he was the consummate professional, but that happened rarely. People in SAT relied on Helen Palmer’s costly psychic readings, as prognosticators of behavior patterns, things to work on. There were people who used their alleged connections to the other side as sources for psychological investigation. There was Anne Armstrong (who gave me unsolicited and disastrous advice about a business deal) and a specious Chilean palm reader to whom Kathy Riordan Speeth is indebted to for losing her license to practice therapy in California.

I have made a list and named names, far from complete, in order to point out to the other-worldly and suspect sources for many of the psychological techniques that were used to dig down to the roots of personal psychological make-up. Key to any of this having therapeutic benefits is surrender. Suspension of judgment opens the back door to the unexpected and revelatory, hidden motivations, the dark family secret that has been lurking and putting up barriers. However investigation shifts from analysis of counterproductive behaviors to tracing their source using suspect means, as if dream analysis á la Oracle at Delphi had become a substitute for free association, and the mind-altering experience of LSD a quick route to the fruits of meditation practice.

But what if this type of inquiry does not stand the test of time or produce real results? Spiritual charlatans have a huge bag of tricks--they act like drugs--to induce experiences of ecstasy and revelation. I was told over and over to “suspend [my] judgment, enter into another state where things will be revealed.” This gibberish is an exact quote; some version is repeated ad nauseam to this day. To be honest, sometimes sleight of hand is useful in discovering a personal blind spot, but at some point the trick has to be revealed for what it is. Otherwise it just becomes part of the illusion.

We know that some mental processes work below the surface. They are unconscious; if they remain hidden, they wield enormous influence and we remain in their thrall. But a simple dream about having a heart attack is no predictor. Casual or surface exploration serves little purpose other than to induce fear. When a friend told me about having a dream like this, I asked if he’d seen a cardiologist. But I also knew that I suspended my judgment many times when it would have been better to allow my actually well-trained critical facility to maintain the upper hand.

Hoffman once told me that his dreams had predicted that he would be cured of cancer because he had a higher calling, and I believed him until I took care of him when he was dying of cancer. I’d been doing professional hospice work for nearly a decade so I was not particularly shocked by his lack of acceptance of his own death. He was in complete denial, expecting another psychic miracle and very angry when it didn’t appear. I have detailed some of the unraveling of his pretense and absurd lies behind his psychic understanding of life in other writings. Perhaps I ought to listen to my mother and not speak ill about the dead, and in honesty I have to confess that I was far too close to the man to be objective. His sexual abuse was always in the background, and there were never any amends--he was far too arrogant to admit any personal faults. But there was also something more interesting going on, the beginnings of the erosion of the framework underpinning his system and by extension, the entire work that Naranjo undertook with his groups.

In response to a request from a friend to examine particular Gurdjieff sources, I came across some talks, very definitive statements he made about the differing roles of women and men. These were the urtexts, transcriptions of his talks to students either at Le Prieuré or in his Paris flat. It seemed all very high-tone, even provocative. But it had the confrontational tone of a bully. Part of my mind revolted, and I began to realize that what I read was simply outright misogyny, delivered in a extremely arrogant tone, quite similar to what I experienced in the men whom I’d met who claimed their authority by referencing the Armenian seer.

There was no abrupt “Ah ha” moment. In my mind I started to construct a protective shield for this figure who was held in utmost reverence by people I respected. He was, we were told, a man who knew himself. I told myself that the misogyny had to be a function of time, place and circumstance; this charismatic member of an elite group who’d undertook a heroic exploration of ancient traditions and helped find a key to some of the mysteries that had presented themselves to me, and provided a key, or what I imagined was a key, to self-understanding.

But that made Gurdjieff himself just an ordinary man ruled by circumstance, and being a man lulled to sleep by life’s circumstances was exactly what “The Work'' sets out to conquer. The sleep state keeps us enslaved. What about all the rest of what Gurdjieff claimed? The house of cards began to fall. I gave up surrendering to a set of ideas that produced a modicum of results. They were based almost exclusively on the word of a man who claimed authority by his experience and hard won understanding of man’s plight. But it all stood or fell on his authority, real or imagined. I could no longer stake my life on this teaching.

The argument from authority is “[a] formal fallacy in which it is argued that because a perceived authority figure (or figures) believes a proposition (relevant to their authority) to be true, that proposition must therefore be true.” But what this authority figure proposed was blatantly false. What Hoffman claimed about the psychic workings of the mind was absurd. What Naranjo claimed about the origin of the Enneagram of fixations was an hallucination at best. Gurdjieff was a bully, a sexist and misogynist. Believe them at your own peril. Q.E.D.

I do not however want to throw out the whole barrel as if it were filled with rotten fish that stinks to high heaven. I remembered the words of Pyotr Demianovich Ouspenskii whom Gurdjieff thought was a convivial partner to share a glass of vodka with at The Stray Dog, but “a weak man”. If Self-Remembering can get us here, even for an instant, it was worth all the effort.

“…that you can know consciousness only in yourself. Observe that I say you can know, for you can know it only when you have it.” 

 And I emphasize this sentence: “And when you have not got it, you can know that you have not got it, not at that very moment, but afterwards.” 

After a period of time and reflection. It took me a while.



*The Stray Dog. A Saint Petersburg cafe where Gurdjieff held forth, according to
G. Lachman. It is the presumed site that elicited the comment from Gurdjieff that Ouspenskyy was a personable guy to drink vodka with but a weak man.

* When I first heard of wokeism, this is what my mind conjured up, and the term does insist on a degree of blanket “correctness,” including its underlying assumptions.

Oscar has said that “in order to understand the originality of the perspective of the Arica Integral Teachings, it is important to remember that Buddhism is based on the epistemological and immediate discovery or knowledge of the world as being fundamentally in a state of suffering (Skt. samsara). This is the First Noble Truth. What the Arica Theory proposes is an ontological foundation with the discovery that one step behind suffering, we find the actual root of that suffering, and this step behind discovers, answers and defines the ontological proposition that there must be a being, an Ego–entity, that supports that suffering.” The Roots of Buddhism and Arica Integralism


Claudio Naranjo
End of Patriarchy: And the Dawning of a Tri-Une Society Paperback – 1 Jan. 1994
Cf. Chapter on the Fisher-Hoffman Process of Psychic Therapy

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