Gurdjieff's Life and Ideas
Gurdjieff was born (c. 1866) in the Caucasus, a region where many peoples and traditions coexisted productively in what remains to this day a border zone between Asia and the West. He recognized in his youth that conventional Western science, philosophy, and religion could not answer his compelling questions about what he called "the sense and aim of human existence." Convinced that answers to his questions might be found in Asia, perhaps in remote religious communities sheltered from the modern world, he formed a group of like-minded associates, the Seekers of Truth, and for some twenty years traveled with them in search of missing knowledge through the Near East, Central Asia, India, and parts of North Africa and the Orthodox Christian world. Early in 1912, he established himself as an independent teacher in Moscow (and the following year also in St. Petersburg) and began to transmit the ideas and practical methods for "work on oneself" that today bear his name.
When the Bolshevik Revolution imposed heavy restrictions on Russian society, he migrated with a number of pupils to France. There, just outside Paris in 1922, he founded the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man, to which pupils came from the United States as well as many other countries. While Paris and its region remained his residence until his death in 1949, he visited the United States at the beginning of 1924, established groups for the study of his teaching, and periodically returned to work with them through 1948.
After Gurdjieff's death in October 1949, his core group of pupils, guided by Jeanne de Salzmann to whom he had passed the responsibility for his work, undertook to preserve and share the teaching. Experienced and trusted men and women in Paris, London, New York, and soon Caracas founded groups locally and in many other cities in the course of the 1950s. Those groups in turn fostered the work of the next generation, of which the Gurdjieff Foundation of WNC is a part.
One of the central ideas of Gurdjieff's teaching is that human beings are not complete; rather, we are an unfinished creation with enormous potential of which we are unaware. Our development is brought to a certain point by Nature, sufficient for the demands of ordinary life. Further development of our larger possibilities does not, and cannot, occur spontaneously, but depends on our active participation. Gurdjieff said,
"The evolution of man is the evolution of his consciousness. And 'consciousness' cannot evolve unconsciously. The evolution of man is the evolution of his will, and 'will' cannot evolve involuntarily. The evolution of man is the evolution of his power of doing, and 'doing' cannot be the result of things which 'happen'."
If we are a creation possessing marvelous potential, the question arises as to why we do not move toward it, to claim it urgently as our own. Gurdjieff proposes that in our ordinary state we are asleep. In this state of sleep, many of us live our entire lives without being aware that something more is possible. We imagine ourselves to be fully conscious and fully developed. This illusion prevents us from seeing our situation and, especially, ourselves as we really are. Gurdjieff expressed this very clearly: "If a man in prison was at any time to have a chance of escape, then he must first of all realize that he is in prison."