The Theosophical Society in America

In the Work

Originally printed in the November - December 2004 issue of Quest magazine. 
Citation:Lachman,Gary. "In the Work." Quest  92.6 (NOVEMBER - DECEMBER 2004):221-217
By Gary Lachman

Gary LachmanI first came across the names G. I. Gurdjieff and P. D. Ouspensky in 1975, in Colin Wilson's The Occult. I was nineteen and living in New York City, playing bass guitar with the then-unknown pop group Blondie. I had just become interested in books about magic, the occult, and esotericism, and I have to admit that in my first exposure to Gurdjieff, I was more interested in the reports of his remarkable powers than in his austere doctrine. He was as fascinating as the many other figures in Wilson's book, like Aleister Crowley, Rasputin, and Madame Blavatsky, but I wasn't drawn to his teaching. Two years and many books later, I had changed my mind.

I had read Ouspensky's early work Tertium Organum as well as A New Model of the Universe and was impressed by both. I then read his account of his time with Gurdjieff, In Search of the Miraculous, which had a seriousness and urgency unlike most of the occult literature I was devouring. Gurdjieff's doctrine—that human beings have enormous powers of consciousness, which are obscured by a mechanical habit of sleep— struck me as self-evident. I believed that we experience only a fraction of what our consciousness is capable of and that the aim of all occult or spiritual practice is to tap this hidden reservoir of power. I had made some attempts to do this on my own, with interesting results. But after covering a lot of fascinating ground, after a while I had to admit I wasn't really getting anywhere.

It was then that I wondered about Gurdjieff. I still had some resistance. I'm not much of a joiner, and Gurdjieff's "fourth way" was based on the idea that one can do nothing on one's own; according to him, being in a group was absolutely necessary. This made me hesitate. Other elements put me off too. For example, I love books and music and found it difficult to accept Gurdjieff's assertion that my favorite poets and composers were just as asleep as everybody else. But there was nevertheless something about his teaching that attracted me. It certainly struck me as the most demanding and rigorous I had come across. As presented by Ouspensky, it was lucid and almost scientifically precise, although I quickly discovered this was not the case with Gurdjieff's own books. But most important, it was based on experience and knowledge, and this meant that it was honest. In a realm where wishful thinking and self-deception were commonplace, this seemed important.

By the early 1980s, Gurdjieff, who died in Paris in 1949, was experiencing a kind of revival. New memoirs and accounts by his students seemed to appear overnight. James Webb's definitive study, The Harmonious Circle, appeared then too. Gurdjieff's name was in the air. Yet unlike today, it was difficult t to find a school practicing his teaching. When you pick up a fourth-way book at a bookshop today, you'll more than likely find a bookmark inside advertising a Gurdjieff and Ouspensky center. There are dozens of Web sites dedicated to "the work," the homely name given to Gurdjieff's system. Many of these are bogus, having no connection with Gurdjieff's original groups in Russia. Nevertheless, they show that Gurdjieff and his teaching have a much higher profile today than when I first became involved.

My first encounter with people actually practicing the system was at a public lecture at the Barbizon Hotel on sixty-third Street. I was surprised at the number of people who attended; apparently I wasn't the only person in New York who wanted to wake up. One speaker made a point of emphasizing the difference between "I" and "it"; he repeated a phrase several times throughout his talk: "Like what it does not like." "It" was our mechanical, habit-ridden self, which we mistakenly believe is awake. "I" was our true self, submerged beneath layers of sleep and automatism. At present "it" dominates us, and a brief period of self-observation shows how little free will we really possess. The aim of the work was to study "it," to learn its habits and character, while at the same time gradually making "I" stronger. I returned to my apartment excited by what I had heard, wondering if I should call the telephone number on the flyer handed out at the lecture.

The irony was that my entry into the work was much closer than I knew. A friend who was interested in spiritual ideas knew I was reading a lot about Gurdjieff. We had talked about a variety of things—Jung, Kabbalah, Hinduism, Buddhism—and when I mentioned the lecture to him, he showed great interest. A few days later he asked if I was really interested in getting involved in the work. I said yes. "In that case," he said, "call this number," and handed me a piece of paper. On it was a telephone number, but not the one on the flyer. "It's my teacher. I mentioned you to him," he said. "He's expecting you to call. I've been working with him for about a year, but I wanted to see how serious you were before telling you about it. If you are serious, I'd call soon."

I did. The man's voice on the other end was steady, deep, and to the point. Would I like to come next week and have a chat? Then he gave me the address.

The meeting place was a small apartment on the Upper East Side. A woman answered the door, and I was ushered into a small room and asked to sit down. The apartment was decorated in an Eastern fashion, with Persian carpets and wall hangings, Oriental ornaments and objets d'art. There were also many paintings; these, I later found, were the work of my host. After a few minutes the man I had spoken with came in and introduced himself. His name was Paul, and I later discovered that he was one of the principal teachers of the Gurdjieff "movements," the extremely difficult sacred dances that Gurdjieff claimed he had learned at the mysterious monastery of the Sarmoung Brotherhood. Whether this was true or not remains an open question, but a few years later, when I began practicing the movements myself, where they came from seemed irrelevant. What was clear was their ability to evoke unusual states of consciousness.

Paul was the most composed person I had ever met. I was impressed by his movements; he seemed relaxed yet alert and carried himself with an economy of action. He had presence. After introducing himself, he sat there for a few moments, untroubled by the nervousness most people feel in these situations and usually relieve through talk. Then he asked me about myself, what I did and why I was interested in the work. Although I was only twenty-four, I already had a few achievements under my belt. By that time I had left Blondie and started my own group. One of my songs had been Top 10 hit. I had been on television and radio and had been interviewed for magazines and newspapers. I was playing to large crowds and making a comfortable living. All this meant very little to Paul. He took it all in, nodded, and then asked why I was interested in joining his group. It was an unexpectedly difficult question. In the end I fumbled and lamely said that I wanted to wake up. "Yes," Paul remarked, "but that will take time." He told me how the work required seriousness and commitment, and he wondered if I could make that kind of commitment. I said I could. "Well," he said, "I have a group for beginners that meets once a week. You can come to that and we will see." He wrote down the address and handed it to me, then said, "Please come on time."

Paul's group met in a basement apartment on a side street between Lexington and Park Avenues. That first meeting set the pattern for the rest. The group sat on hard wooden chairs in a bare room, the only other furnishing being a wooden table on which rested a vase of flowers, a pitcher of water, and some glasses. Paul sat in front of us; occasionally there was another chair beside his and another teacher would join him. There was no lecture. We sat in an uncomfortable silence until someone found the courage to speak. General questions were frowned upon; remarks had to be focused on practical matters, relating to the exercises Paul had given.

The group had been given an exercise, and after that first meeting, Paul taught it to me as well. It was called sensing your body. The instructions were to sit in a chair with your legs slightly apart and your hands on your knees. Then sense your right arm, starting at the shoulder and working down to your fingers. Continue with the right leg, then left leg, and left arm, and then start again, this time with the right leg, then left leg, and so on. After completing a cycle and returning to the beginning, you sense the top of the head, then the face, then the neck. Finally, you were to sense your whole body. It was difficult at first to understand what was meant by "sensing," but after a time I experienced a curious tingling, as if a slight drizzle were falling on me. After some weeks, I was told to end the exercise by standing up and taking a few steps, while maintaining my sensation.

Although Paul tried to keep us focused on the exercise, people would invariably bring up personal matters during the discussions. One of the reasons Gurdjieff emphasized the need for groups is that he knew different personalities would grate on each other, creating the friction he believed was necessary for work. I was often impatient when people brought up some personal crisis and subjected the group to a long monologue about it. I realize now that this was probably why Paul let them do it: It provided an opportunity to see our own shortcomings. After one such meeting my displeasure must have been very evident, because Paul took me aside and in true Gurdjieffean fashion gave me a brisk talking to, informing me that I would never get anywhere as long as I thought I knew better than anyone else. Sadly, I've failed to profit as much from this advice as I might have.

I practiced sitting in the morning, and self-remembering during the day, making appointments with myself when, no matter what I was doing, I would try to feel a full awareness of myself. This may sound easy, but it wasn't. In the midst of going about your affairs, to suddenly pull yourself out of the stream of events and remember that you are here requires considerable effort. Gurdjieff's basic idea was that we do not "remember ourselves," that we are habitually sunk into a kind of half-dream state that we mistakenly accept as consciousness. This being so, it was difficult enough to remember my appointments, and even harder to work up a real sense of my being, especially when I was with someone else.

People in the work celebrate Gurdjieff's birthday on January 13, and for my first celebration I was invited to a gathering in a house outside the city. Along with a few other people, I drove out with my friend who had introduced me to Paul. I was impressed by the house — it was more a mansion —and by the number of people. It was an odd gathering; although there were many people, the atmosphere wasn't festive. Neither was it solemn, although there was certainly an air of seriousness. After someone took our coats, we were invited to move into a large room and to take a seat. Then I was introduced to Gurdjieff's ritual of toasts, accomplished with powerful vodka. We were each given a tumbler and, after an appropriate toast, were obliged to empty it. This happened several times. I hadn't eaten yet, and the effects came on quickly. This added to the oddness of what happened next. Someone announced that in honor of the occasion, we would be treated to a special performance of the Babylonian epic Gilgamesh. That in itself was unusual, but no preparation for what followed. I looked to the center of the room where a small stage had been erected and recognized the actor Bill Murray, from Saturday Night Live. I had no idea that he, like myself, was interested in Gurdjieff's ideas, nor that he was involved in the same organization that I was. I enjoyed the performance, but it was difficult after my toasts to keep a straight face whenever I heard him say "Enkidu."

In 1982 I left New York and moved to Los Angeles, where my involvement with the work became deeper and more intense. I joined a group and also started attending "ideas meetings," where sections of In Search of the Miraculous or Gurdjieff's jawbreaker of a book, Beelzebub's Tales to His Grandson, were read and discussed. My friends and I were reading as much literature on the work as we could find: Maurice Nicoll, J. G. Bennett, Rodney Collin, and other fourth way writers. I also started attending work weekends. At a large house north of the Hollywood Hills, people from different groups would gather for intensive "work days." These would begin with a morning talk, followed by a new exercise, which we were asked to perform throughout the day. As Gurdjieff had done at his Prieure in Fontainebleau, students were given physical tasks to perform: gardening, cleaning, preparing meals, carpentry. The task itself and how well it was done wasn't the aim of the exercise; the idea was to remember oneself, to focus on the work at hand, and to perform what Gurdjieff called "conscious labor." A famous story about Gurdjieff's Prieure involved the editor A. R. Orage, who arrived there in 1923 expecting to receive words of wisdom from the master and was instead handed a shovel and told to dig. Orage dug until his back ached and he was in tears, and was then told to fill the hole in again. He wondered what madness he had got himself into until one day he found himself enjoying the digging and feeling no pain at all: He had forced himself beyond his artificial limits and broken through to his hidden reservoirs of energy. I received a milder version of the Orage treatment when, after spending an afternoon painting a long wooden fence, I was informed that it wasn't the right color and I had to paint it all over again. I was indignant until I realized that the painting wasn't the point, but the insights that I got while doing it. On another occasion, while raking leaves, I had what I believe to be an unalloyed moment of wakefulness. Reaching down to scoop a batch of wet leaves into a trash bag, I found myself staring at them in amazement, as if I had never really seen a leaf before. I remembered how fresh and clean the world had seemed as a child, and for a few moments I enjoyed that same clarity. It was then that the whole idea of sleep and mechanicalness became real to me, not just an idea.

It was also around this time that I started practicing the movements. At first they were impossible: The old game of trying to rub your stomach with one hand while patting your head with the other gives some idea of what's involved, but that is a hundred times easier. About a dozen students would line up in rows and, to the accompaniment of a piano, throw themselves into contortions, like puppets with their strings cut. Often I would drop out in disgust with myself. But one evening I persevered, and after ignoring my dismay I found myself doing the movements with ease and confidence. I experienced a sudden rush of power, and at the end I was so full of energy that I wanted to get in my car and drive nonstop to San Francisco, an eight-hour trip.

In the summer of 1983, a friend and I decided to set out on our own mini "search for the miraculous," taking a trip to Europe. Along with visiting Stonehenge, Avebury, Chartres Cathedral, and other sacred sites, we visited Gurdjieff's Prieure in Fontainebleau, then an abandoned château. In Paris we also tracked down the apartment on the rue des Colonels Renards, near the Etoile, where, during the German occupation, Gurdjieff conducted his secret groups and where he spent his last days.

It was on my return from Europe that my doubts about my place in the work began. I have always had an eclectic mind, and while absorbing all I could about Gurdjieff's ideas, I was also taking in a great deal of other material. Making comparisons was frowned upon, but I found it difficult not to put Gurdjieff's and Ouspensky's system in context with other thinkers' work. I saw no point in denying that many of Gurdjieff's ideas had parallels in the work of other philosophers and psychologists and that, although his presentation and practice were startling and very different, his basic ideas were not as unique as his more convinced students believed. There was something of the superman in the way many people in the work viewed Gurdjieff, and although he was without doubt one of the most remarkable men to ever live, he was not, I believed, infallible. More to the point, it struck me as dangerous to consider any teacher infallible, Gurdjieff or anyone else.

Other things too led me to feel less than eager to continue. For one thing, I found it difficult to understand why Gurdjieff treated Ouspensky, his best pupil, in the questionable way he had; in fact, the mystery about this remained with me long after I dropped out of the work, and twenty years later, I wrote a book about it. It was difficult not to be impressed with Gurdjieff, but I began to wonder about his motives. I was also less than unequivocal in my appreciation of his Beelzebub's Tales, the bible of the work. I found it unreadable and couldn't fathom why he would purposely make his ideas difficult to grasp. My other reading had raised many questions; although at first I was scornful of any criticism about the work, I now could see why many people whom I considered intelligent and insightful would be repelled by it. And although I had attained some results, I felt that after four years I was pretty much where I started. This seemed to be the case for with other people too, although it struck me that for many the work had become more of a lifestyle than, as it originally was for me, a means of achieving an end. And the teaching itself, for all its rigor and discipline, seemed curiously lacking positive content. The impetus behind "working" was the negative motivation of escaping from sleep. In other writers—for example, in the work of Colin Wilson — I found more positive, optimistic goals, but when I brought this up during meetings, I was advised that these were only ideas, simply another form of sleep.

These ideas, however, were giving me much more incentive than the now routine work repertoire. They provided a much-needed carrot to complement the Gurdjieffean stick, and I was not about to drop them. I stuck with it for a while and experienced some profound soul-searching, but in the end I thought it was dishonest to continue with so many reservations. After some weeks of indecisiveness, I announced to my teacher that I would be leaving. At first I felt at loose ends a bit, but soon a feeling of freshness and freedom surfaced and to this day I consider it the right decision. I had learned a lot from the work, and I have a lot of respect for its practitioners. But in the end it was not for me. It was not for Ouspensky either, at least in the form it was taught by his master, and in my book, In Search of Ouspensky: Genius in the Shadow of Gurdjieff (Quest Books, 2004), I have tried to understand why.