We Meet Monsieur Gurdjieff – Motus Mentis

I’ve alluded rather obliquely in some of my posts to various schools of inner development, without going into a lot of detail. I’d like to begin to talk about one such system with which I have had various levels of contact all of my life. The ideas in question are those brought to the West by the Greek/Armenian teacher G.I. Gurdjieff.

Here is a very brief synopsis of G.’s life, from the Gurdjieff Foundation of New York’s website:

G.I. Gurdjieff was born in Alexandropol, close to the frontiers of Russia and Turkey, circa 1866. Finding that neither science nor religion answered his questions about the meaning of man’s life, he became convinced that an ancient knowledge must exist and could still be found on Earth. After twenty years of search in remote parts of Central Asia and the Near East, he returned to Russia in 1912. Settling near Paris in 1922, he established the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man at Fontainebleau. In 1924, he made the first of a series of visits to America. In 1929, he moved from Fontainebleau to Paris where he continued writing and working with a small number of students until his death in 1949.

I first noticed the name when I was a child, on the spines of some rather musty old books in my father’s study.

My father grew up in London, and after a stint as a medic in the Royal Navy during the Second World War returned to London to continue his medical education at Imperial College and St. George’s Hospital. There he became acquainted with a number of intellectually curious physicians and scientists, among them one Dr. Kenneth Walker. Dr. Walker was involved with a group that met on occasion to discuss some rather unusual ideas about human psychology and development, and invited my father to join him.

At this time M. Gurdjieff, who had settled in France in the 1920s, and who rode out the war in Paris, was near the end of his life. But he still worked with small groups in Paris, and occasionally crossed the Channel to London as well. It was one of these meetings that my father was invited to attend.

I wish to be clear that my father is not a credulous or superstitious man, and as a scientist he has a skeptical and questioning mind. But he sensed at once that there was something quite extraordinary about Gurdjieff, and said that he immediately formed the same impression that so many others have reported: that when you met him he looked right through you, that one felt one had no secrets in his presence.

My father was intrigued by both the remarkable personality of the man himself and by the system of ideas and methods he presented, and became a regular member of the London groups. He also traveled to Paris on several occasions to meet and work with groups there, and assisted Dr. Walker as he treated Gurdjieff in his final illness.

Much of the Gurdjieff work involves music, movement, and the effect of impressions of various sorts on the human organism. One of the earliest and most vivid experiences my father recalls from the London meetings was of Gurdjieff making a demonstration of the effects of musical tones.

For this meeting, which was held in a London townhouse, Gurdjieff had asked his hosts if he might tune the piano in a special way. Having spent the time to adjust it to his liking, he asked the group to gather round. He explained that the tempered scale used in Western music was a compromise, and that although such a tuning made it possible to play in many keys, and to move between keys on the same instrument, certain essential properties of musical vibration, known since ancient times, could not be achieved on an instrument tuned in this way. So he had adjusted the piano in such a way as to make these effects possible.

He asked for a small glass of water, and placed it on the piano. He then began to play an odd melody, punctuated by loud, sharp chords. All present later described the effect of these chords in the same way – as being similar to an electric shock passing though their bodies. It was as if the music was causing a direct, objective effect in each of them, and my father said the experience was quite unlike anything he had ever encountered before.

When he had finished playing, M. Gurdjieff raised the glass of water. It was frozen.

There is a very great deal I would like to say about all of this, but I must be very, very careful to say it all in the right way, and not to overreach myself to the detriment of all. Gurdjieff’s system is not a small topic, worthy of a diverting post or two, but is rather an ancient, immense and interconnected web of ideas, some very difficult. I won’t be rushing through it, and there may be long stretches between posts, but I will write what I can as I feel I am able.