Sifting the Wheat

On the subject of Gurdjieff, I’m minded to quote a Zen saying I rather like and have used on quite disparate occasions: “Even false words are true if they lead to enlightenment; even true words are false if they breed attachment.”

Needless to say I’m well aware of the strictures against him. Guénon summed up the traditionalist point of view on the subject with his advice to “flee Gurdjieff like the plague”, and Whitall Perry undertook what he once described to me as the “loathsome” task of justifying this advice in his book Gurdjieff in Light of Tradition.

So why you ask would I—a perennialist after all—nonetheless introduce my own students to the ideas of so dangerous a figure?

I can best respond to this question by reminding you that my preferred pedagogy is dialectical and not catechetical or doctrinaire. My chief interest is in teaching students to think, the assumption being that clear and careful thought cannot but lead to the Truth. But this means giving my charges a certain mix of perspectives and then helping them—sometimes forcing them!—to figure at least a few things out for themselves. With a little prodding, this usually works fairly well.

You can be assured in any case that plenty of time was spent sifting the wheat from the chaff in G.’s “system”. And this meant acknowledging—to put several levels of complexity “in a nutshell”—the often frightening accuracy of his diagnosis of the fallen human condition, while at the same realizing that the techniques he offered for “self-remembrance” were at best—as Ouspensky admitted in the subtitle to In Search of the Miraculous—”fragmentary”.

The students could not but agree with Gurdjieff’s assessment of their “mechanical” and “somnambulistic” lives, nor could they fail to see the importance of becoming spiritually serious if they wanted to do something about it. But as to how to be serious, they also came away realizing that something was clearly missing in G., or at least in Ouspensky’s presentation of his teaching. And of course this gave me an excellent opening for inserting a few observations about my experiences on Mount Athos, as well as some recommendations concerning their future reading on the subject of mystical Islam and other traditional forms of “work” (to use the Gurdjieffian term).

By the way (I have no idea how far this claim could be pressed) it’s been said that by the end of his life Gurdjieff was specifically advising those who came to him to go to Athos, and writers like Robin Amis (A Different Christianity) are of the opinion that what G. had always been trying to do was to give a “contemporary” voice to traditional Hesychast teaching.

Be that as it may, I can tell you with confidence that none of the young people in my recent seminar ended up as Gurdjieffians—nor Barfieldians or Parmenideans, for that matter, even though we also read Owen Barfield’s Worlds Apart and Peter Kingsley’s Reality. On the other hand I’m just as confident that the unconventional materials I used allowed me to “get through” to several students who would not have responded as favorably, or as fully, to traditional metaphysical or mystical works.

No doubt Guénon would still be scandalized by my reading assignments! But one must lead with one’s strengths and, to say it again, mine are dialectical. I do not preach “-isms”—even “perennialism” or “traditionalism”—in my classes. I remember on the contrary Schuon’s admonition that “every system is only error when confronted with the Truth”. And I try as best I can to assist others to enter into the interstices between all the words, even “true” words.

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